A sick looking globe, with a pool of sweat under it and heat rising from it, with a thermometer in its motu

Old Habits – The Quadra Project

Some old habits are difficult to break. Since the global pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, 30 years of half-hearted trying has not stopped them from going up rather than down. The result is exactly as scientific modelling has predicted—global temperatures are rising. The year 2023 was the hottest in about 125,000 years after temperature records were recorded for consecutive months from June to December of 2023, and then for January and February of 2024. The final calculations for 2023 indicate that we have reached 1.32°C above the pre-industrial temperature, exceeding the 2019 record by 0.4°C. Yes, it’s a warmer El Niño year, but that only accounts for 0.2°C of the 1.32°C. New 2024 calculations indicate we have reached 1.48°C above historical levels.

The maximum target, set by the 2015 Paris Accord, of no more than 1.5°C has not been technically breached, but environmental scientists can find no existing strategy that will prevent this ceiling from being exceeded. Indeed, the 1.5°C is a global average. About one-third of the days in 2023 were in excess of this target. Some parts of the planet were well above 2.0°C. Atmospheric CO2 levels are now hovering around 425 parts per million, up from the 180 ppm base. January of 2024 also set a record, bringing the previous twelve month period to a global temperature of 1.52°C above the average set between 1880 and 1920. February of 2024 was 1.73°C above. March also set a record. But the Paris Accord doesn’t stipulate when the 1.5°C target will be breached—rather unhelpfully, it suggests that a 20 year consecutive period with temperatures above 1.5°C is required.

The United Nations predicts that, given the present rate of reductions in CO2 emissions, global temperatures will exceed both the 1.5°C and the 2.0°C red lines, and could reach 2.9°C by 2100, a condition that will cause climate pandemonium.

Of course, the aspirational target of 1.5°C is merely a number that happens to be equidistant between 1 and 2 in our counting system. But nature doesn’t count. The rising CO2 levels will produce the disruptive conditions decreed by the laws of physics. Each 1.0°C rise in temperature raises atmospheric humidity by 7%, resulting in a 14% increase in precipitation. This is simple physical science. When translated by other factors influencing weather, this means more rainfall and more intense storms, combined with less equitable moisture distribution. If you have been inconvenienced by the cancellation of a recent flight or ferry because of extreme weather conditions, this is a sample of the new reality that we are inventing for ourselves.

No one will be immune to the consequences of our individual and our collective behaviour. Take a five hour flight, then a return home, and your personal contribution to atmospheric carbon dioxide, assuming an 80% occupancy rate in the airplane, will be about 1 metric tonne. Translate that into other measures, and it’s about the weight of a small car, or about 2.7 years of your personal carbon dioxide production from breathing out 1 kilogram of CO2 per day.

We somehow manage to subvert even the best of our efforts to reduce CO2 emissions. The electrification of cars, for example, a major project that has been gaining momentum since 2010, could have reduced automotive emissions by 30%, but due to a consumer taste for larger and heavier SUVs, that reduction was only 4.2%.

The stark reality is that we, the half of the people on the planet who are responsible for about 93% of the carbon dioxide emissions, are not trying hard enough to reduce them. The climate crisis is still not universally registered as such, but it is a permanent condition that will affect the stability of our civilization, and the health and security and prosperity of our children, our children’s children, and their children’s children for multiple generations to come. This will be our legacy.

The climate stability, upon which our entire civilization is based, is beginning to collapse, and we are already experiencing the early signs of this collective trauma. The process is not easily recognized because history usually happens in slow motion relative to us. The changes occur piece by piece, accumulating little by little, barely noticed in our short days, months and years. We fail to see the patterns because we live too close to the moment. By trying to adapt to the slow arrival of these changes, we psychologically make the abnormal into the normal—until the new normal becomes unbearable.

If we are to avoid living in the obliviousness of the present, we need to be conscious of this process before it’s too late to avoid the unthinkable. We each have an obligation to ourselves, to others and to future generations to be intelligent consumers, travellers, citizens, neighbours, relatives, friends and voters. Urgency is the new watchword.

Ray Grigg for Sierra Quadra

Top image credit: Carbon Footprint by Baluchi5 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED)