Hothouse Earth by Ryan Mizzen

In August, a research paper by Will Steffen et al. entitled ‘Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene’, garnered some much needed media attention. The timing of the paper may have struck a chord as much of the northern hemisphere was dealing with heatwaves and wildfires also extended into the Arctic Circle.

Many people know that climate change isn’t a future problem as we’re already experiencing it. However, this summer served to show the wider public that climate change is here and offered a small glimpse into some of the disasters that await us if we fail to make drastic changes.

The research paper makes reference to a ‘Hothouse Earth’ pathway, which suggests that if global temperatures were to rise around 2°C above pre-industrial levels, a range of feedback processes could come into play that create self-reinforcing mechanisms that continue to warm our climate beyond our ability to reign in climate change. The authors call this a “domino-like cascade that could take the Earth System to even higher temperatures.”

Speaking to The Guardian, one of the report authors, Katherine Richardson, said that, “We note that the Earth has never in its history had a quasi-stable state that is around 2°C warmer than the preindustrial and suggest that there is substantial risk that the system, itself, will ‘want’ to continue warming because of all of these other processes – even if we stop emissions… This implies not only reducing emissions but much more.”

The report notes that this could result in massive system changes, including the conversion of vast swathes of the Amazon rainforest to a savanna-type environment, as well as the large scale loss of permafrost. The issue we have is that we’ve already locked in over 1°C of warming, from preindustrial levels. The Paris Agreement from 2015, set out to limit warming to a maximum of 2°C and hoped to curtail it to 1.5°C.

However, world leaders haven’t taken anywhere near enough action to meet either of these targets. Research published in Nature Climate Change, suggested that we only have a 5% chance of meeting the 2°C target and a 1% chance of meeting the 1.5°C target, and predict that we’ll instead see warming between 2C and 4.9C by 2100. The upper end of this temperature prediction would result in mass loss of life across large swathes of the planet.

As things stand, our chances of preventing warming below 2°C are very low. If world leaders don’t implement widespread measures to tackle climate change and meet their Paris Agreement targets, then it’s highly likely we’ll breach the 2°C threshold, which could trigger the ‘Hothouse Earth’ conditions the report warns about. On top of that, we have countries like the US who intend to pull out of the Paris Agreement, further compounding attempts to tackle climate change.

The report authors state that if we pass a planetary threshold towards the Hothouse Earth pathway, then it could be very difficult to get back onto the safer ‘Stabilized Earth’ pathway. In other words, if we miss our chance to tackle climate change now and prevent less than an additional 1°C of global warming, then it might be impossible to tackle climate change, as we’ll be committed to the Hothouse Earth pathway.

The report authors are therefore right to point out that the social and technological decisions being made over the next one to two decades could influence the Earth System for a time frame extending to tens or hundreds of thousands of years, and could create conditions that are inhospitable for our societies and a significant number of other species.

The message therefore couldn’t be clearer, the time for action is now, and delayed action could be fatal.


Ryan Mizzen holds a First Class BSc in Climate Change from Coventry University (one of the first universities in Europe to offer this programme) and an MA in Creative Writing, and intends to use fiction to inform people about the need to act on climate change. In 2018, he was named as an Environmental Changemaker for his writing ambitions, following on from the UN Environment Young Champions of the Earth competition. He’s had climate change articles published by Africa Geographic, the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the South African newspaper. Ryan’s also written for IKSurfMagAge UK and The Writing Cooperative. His website is: www.ryanmizzen.com.

 

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