A somber old man looks out of the window of an aircraft

The Quadra Project – 1.5 Degrees Celsius

The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change, adopted by 196 Parties at COP 21 in Paris, on 12 December 2015. It entered into force on 4 November 2016, with the goal of limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, with an aspirational target of 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels.

At the COP 27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022, only a few countries have updated their required annual carbon cutting emission targets for this year, and the United Nations’ Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has described present efforts as so “woefully inadequate” that we are setting the world on track to “catastrophe”. Indeed, current CO2 emissions are rising at 1- 2% per year rather than going down 5-7% per year. Even under the voluntary “nationally determined contributions” of individual nations, emissions are expected to rise by 2030, in contrast to the nearly 50% reduction needed to keep the temperature rise at 1.5°C. At present emission levels, we are committed to a global temperature increase of 2.8°C by the end of the century.

As Antonio Guterres said in his introductory comments to COP 27, “Greenhouse gas emissions keep growing. Global temperatures keep rising. And our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible.” He said, “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator,” adding that, “Humanity has a choice: co-operate or perish.”

We are getting a sample of climate disasters at 1.2°C: unprecedented extremes of fires, floods, storms and heat. For the five-year period period 2017-2021, we had a 10% chance of exceeding the 1.5°C limit; at present emission levels, we have a 48% chance of exceeding it in the 2022-2026 period. Limiting a temperature rise of 1.5°C, as a realistic objective, is on “life support”.

We tend to notice heatwaves when they occur in areas of the planet with high media coverage—the US and Canada in the summer of 2020. But equally disturbing temperatures occurred in the south-east US in 1980, in Brazil in 1985, in South-East Asia in 1998, in south-west Peru in 2016, and in Alaska in 2019. Statistics indicate that these events had only a 0.1% chance of happening without climate change.

Climate disasters have insidiously devious ways of occurring. Consider the “atmospheric river” that washed out BC’s interior roads and flooded the Fraser Valley in 2021. Previous warm winter temperatures allowed mountain pine beetle populations to explode, killing vast stretches of forests. This was followed by forest fires, facilitated by the dead forests and temperature extremes. Then came the heavy rains—a 1.0°C temperature rise increases precipitation by 7%. With fewer forests to absorb the rain, and the forest soils hard and dry from the heat, the water ran directly off the land, washing out roads, bridges, homes and inundating large tracts of land. Single weather extremes can be serious enough, but the way they can occur in collaboration with other factors can amplify the damage caused by any single event.

Damage requires repair. When thousands of homes are destroyed by horrendous floods, fires or hurricanes, they have to be replaced, so the use of the required materials add carbon emissions to an already overcharged atmosphere. Cars, too, become replaceable wrecks. Roads and bridges have to be reconstructed, absorbing time, energy and resources that could be building the future rather than fixing the past.

Emergencies get attention. If these destructive trends continue, then the constant repair of damaged civic structures begin to cause social regression rather than progression. One problem in one place amplifies the severity of other problems elsewhere, and civilization finds itself on the downward slope to disorder and chaos. No single incident would be the cause of its structural failure, but the accumulation of many miscellaneous misfortunes have a collective effect. Some places will become uninhabitable because they are unsafe, or too hot, or too dry, setting off chain reactions of social, political and economic complications.

Parts or most of coastal cities will eventually have be abandoned to rising sea levels. Making these decisions of strategic retreat will be agonizing; living with the consequences will be painful, particularly for a species that prides itself on the sophistication of its urban accomplishments. Choose any coastal city, but imagine, if you will, the psychological effect of watching tidal surges washing up New York’s Fifth Avenue, and waves lapping around the base of its abandoned skyscrapers. Even a 1.5°C temperature increase is likely to raise sea levels nearly 2 metres by the end of this century—and that’s the best case scenario.

Imagination is the incentive that is prompting people like Antonio Guterres to insist that we think about the “highway to climate hell” we are creating by continuing to burn fossil fuels. Tragically, COP 26 in Glasgow in 2021 was the first time the world community agreed to “phase down” coal—India objected to a “phase out”, while oil and gas have yet to even be mentioned for any kind of reduction, even during COP 27 in 2022.

The target of 1.5°C is an arbitrary marker on a one-way highway with no turnaround, and we don’t really know if we have already travelled through the gates of “hell”. But for those who are taking the time to notice the consequences of what we are individually and collectively doing, the mood is turning dark and foreboding. Uncomfortable as this may be, even for us on our little island in the wholeness of things, the ominous prospects might be enough motivation for each of us to reduce emissions in whatever way we can. Hope, however, is not a strategy.

Ray Grigg for Sierra Quadra 

Top photo credit: António Guterres – courtesy Netherlands MInistry of Defence via Wikimedia (Public Domain)

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