Climate change is taking its gloves off. U.S. scientists give a better than 99% chance that most years in the next decade will land among the planet’s top 10 hottest on record, and a 75% chance that all of them will.
The crisis is most apparent at the top of the planet. Siberia has baked all year, registering temperatures that would be practically impossible without greenhouse gas pollution and record wildfires. Greenland last year shed the most ice ever recorded, and by 2035, the Arctic may see an ice-free summer — the first since anatomically modern humans initially left Africa 120,000 years ago. On the other side of the world, the South Pole has been warming at three times the global average rate since 1989. Natural weather variations played a larger role in the heat increase there than human ones — an increasingly rare occurrence.
At the same time, high-level earth science is making progress in estimating how quickly the world will heat up. Since the late 1970s, when the first major U.S. study on the topic was published, scientists have framed it like this: If the level of atmospheric CO₂ doubled compared with preindustrial times, how much would the planet eventually warm? For 40 years the answer has been anywhere from 1.5C to 4.5C, but for the first time, top climatologists have been able to narrow that range to 2.6C to 3.9C. Of course, those estimates rule out many of science’s previous best-case scenarios. The world has already warmed by about 1C, and recent estimates project a catastrophic 3C by 2100 unless the world halts its carbon binge.
Scientists continue to refine their outlooks on the major perils facing humanity, from the global scale of sea-level rise to the impacts of heat on human cognition and motor skills. Even the poor pups won’t be spared. British veterinary data revealed that dogs with flat faces and wide skulls are twice as likely to suffer heat-related illnesses compared to dogs with pronounced snouts. Purebreds in general are more at risk than mutts.
There’s an upside to all this: It absolutely doesn’t have to be this way. “The most comprehensive dataset ever collected” on heat-related mortality, according to Climate Impact Lab, suggests that today’s poorest countries will suffer the greatest losses from the coming heat, while richer nations will have more resources to adapt. By projecting climate inequality, researchers have estimated in dollars how much damage each metric ton of CO₂ will inflict on the world in the form of heat deaths. While the answer suggests previous estimates of CO₂’s cost were far too low, it nonetheless gives policymakers a price — grounded in real data — to inform their plans for cutting future emissions.
A new idea for identifying a realistic carbon price takes advantage of the scientific recommendation that emissions should wind down to net zero by 2050. Backing a carbon price linked to near-term emissions goals rather than scientific estimates for an entire century could be more appealing to lawmakers who deal in the here and now, its backers say.
There’s no shortage of ideas that would improve lives and the climate and not require a carbon price, however. Better fisheries management could increase seafood yields by 74% over the next 30 years and help sustainably feed a human population that’s by then projected to reach almost 10 billion people. Satellite imagery now allows scientists to pinpoint threatened tropical forests that store the most carbon, which could lead to their protection by policymakers. And solar modules made from the mineral perovskite, which is great at both absorbing light and shuttling electrons around, may be inching closer to the real world, according to research journals.
Obstacles to change, and even to fact-based debate, are plenty. Big gas providers oversell the potential of “green gas,” which is derived from a biological source or has its carbon removed and safely stored. Even news organizations have given greater credence to opponents of climate policy compared to proponents trying to raise alarms. Researchers are good at identifying and analyzing these obstacles. Overcoming these impediments is up to everybody else.