As school started up this year, I waited eagerly for the AR5, the fifth assessment report delivered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I don’t expect people outside of the culture of environmentalism to know much — if anything — about this coming out. When published last October, it kicked up very little of a wave outside of these circles. But for those that flip through newspaper headlines, I’m sure one IPCC takeaway was certainly a common one: We Have 12 Years to Limit Climate Catastrophe. Not the most comforting title, but what does that mean? How do we know that and what, if anything, can we do?
Let’s start with where we are today. As of right now, our planet has already warmed 1 degree Celsius more than pre-industrial conditions. That might not sound like a lot, but this has brought about worse hurricanes like Maria and Sandy, forest fires with the magnitude and staying power of the California Camp Fire, and the bitingly abnormal chills of the Polar Vortex just a week ago. Around the world such global warming has exacerbated poverty and inequality as well as increased economic and governmental instability. This is costing livelihoods and lives daily. If this is what we can see at 1 degree, then what will we see at 1.5 degrees or the looming 2 degrees, and when?
Data collected from a myriad of governmental agencies around the world gives us a timeline between 2030-2052 before the global temperature would hit 1.5 degrees warmer. This can be determined both with the previous recorded rates of increase as well as current efforts to mitigate warmth. Optimistically, we may have up to 33 years to slow down our march towards a more inhospitable world, but with current progress 11 years (as of 2019) is much more likely. Once we get to 2030, our projected world of 1.5 degrees will look even more different from the weirdness of today. Yet this increase is at present the agreed-upon necessary stopping point for the climate. This is because the changes are much more drastic and the preventability much less plausible in a scenario where we reach 2 degrees warmer. More of an increase means longer and more extreme heatwaves, plummeting crop yields (particularly for the corn and wheat of the US), increased extinction rates, the complete eradication of coral reefs and much more. This is also the final threshold we have in which changes in human behavior can prevent a cascading effect of positive feedback loops — uncontrollable natural contributors to climate change that will escalate the increase in global temperature exponentially. Keep in mind, 1.5 degrees will still mean harsh changes, but this is a world of difference compared to the even worse conditions under 2 degrees. Yet, we aren’t on track for 1.5 or 2.0. As of now, we are projected to bring about anywhere between a 3 to 4 degree Celsius increase. We are entering the territory of submerged cities, inundated water supplies, an unprecedented global refugee crisis and worsening conditions of all those vulnerable in our societies.
I mention this not because we need to be scared. It’s because we need to be better. We need to think better of what we deserve and what we think the people around us deserve. Even though more pollutive aspects of our lifestyles and societies may make things more comfortable, that comfort is quite finite in the long run. It’s time we refused this myth of the infinite that so many corporations thrive on. Now, no amount of shower reductions or recycled cans is going to make much of a dent into the true harbingers of global warming. These are all important habits for us to get into, yes, but we need to do more. Here on campus, Knox can help make a big difference. Divestment from oil-backing banks like PNC Bank and removal of donor money from oil companies (actors who’ve suppressed the rights and taken the lives of many), increased attention towards the dwindling infrastructure of campus, greater emphasis on future sustainable construction on campus, and greater commitment to local, fair trade foods are all actions that we have the power to bring about. Though some seem like herculean tasks, we’ve got to work mighty hard and go a mighty long way before we can get the world we deserve. The good is worth working towards.