What Will Go Wrong as the Temperature Rises?
Global warming is not a new phenomenon, but rather a change that came about as a consequence of the rise of industrialisation. Since then, it has been accelerating- as the rate of temperature increase has nearly doubled in the last 50 years, and the situation has faced exacerbation in the 21st century. The recent reports on climate change scream of impending doom for humanity. We are no longer in the era where we may sit around and wait as this change unravels, we have entered a crisis that soon-if continues growing at the current pace, will become irreversible.
Climate change is an occurrence that is not exclusive to any region, it has reached every corner and nook of the land on this earth. Despite this, we must understand here that a rise in temperature is not uniform everywhere. When we talk about a 1.5 ̊C increase, we mean the average temperature increase of the Earth. The poles, for instance, are warming at a much faster pace than others. So, when we say that a rise of this nature in the temperature is like pandora’s box, waiting to unravel into a series of negative effects on the environment and humanity as a whole, we mean the average temperature, as some places have already crossed the 1.5 ̊C mark.
The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is a body of the UN that seeks to provide scientific information regarding climate change by studying over 14,000 reports and studies on the subject. Their latest report (dated 9th Aug, ’21) has declared the situation a literal “code red for humanity”. If that sounds terrifying, that’s because it is. These detrimental effects are being experienced at an unprecedented level. In 2019, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were higher than at any time in at least 2 million years. The global mean sea levels have risen rapidly. Additionally, the greenhouse gas emissions being produced are quite literally choking our planet and species. And unsurprisingly, human activities are the root cause of all these threatening problems, with the first line of the report summary reading: "It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land." There is no longer a need for terms to describe the causes such as, ‘it's very likely’ or ‘there’s a chance..’ as the IPCC itself is entirely certain about humans being to blame.
What will actually go wrong as the temperature rises further? We all must see the news of the forest fires spreading uncontrollably in California every few weeks and even those of severe droughts in places. We have even been on the receiving end of extreme heat waves during summer, leaving us parched and sweating. Well, it's going to be all that, but worse.
Many of these consequences are already in the course of action, and cannot be stopped. The ice caps in the polar regions have been slowly melting for a long time and now, the summertime sea ice that tops the Arctic Ocean is expected to completely disappear at least once by 2050 (and that’s the best-case scenario). The Arctic region, in fact, is the fastest-warming area on our Earth. This phenomenon, no matter how many miles away, is not disconnected from our reality and will have noticeable impacts on our lives. These ice-covered regions which reflect heat back into space once balanced out the parts of the world that absorb heat. Less ice will lead to less reflected heat i.e., intense heatwaves and even more extreme winters due to the destabilisation of the polar jet stream (a high-pressure wind that circles the Arctic region.) Heatwaves and unpredictable weather due to ice loss also make us susceptible to significant crop damage, on which global food systems depend. This makes vulnerable communities even more so due to the possibility of higher prices caused by such instability.
The ground that is permanently frozen- known as Permafrost- is a storage ground for methane (a greenhouse gas). The melting of this ground will further the release of methane, resulting in even a faster warming rate- which, in turn, will cause more ice to melt, releasing even more of the gas- like an endless cycle. This melting also gives way to darker waters being exposed, which absorb solar radiation thus causing more warming. The warming of these waters is also detrimental to aquatic life which is not suited to survive in warmer waters.
Melting of polar ice means an increase in mean sea levels- which, according to the IPCC, are bound to rise about 6 to 10 feet no matter what. This can cause disastrous floods, posing danger to coastal communities. The mark of an average 1.5 ̊C increase in the temperature is expected to be crossed within the next two decades.
However, these effects can be halted- to an extent, at least. We cannot stop these repercussions from intensifying over the next 20-30 years, but we have a window- a short one, that will close soon- to lessen their magnitude in the future that awaits us. Some of these effects are “locked-in”, according to the report. To prevent this from exacerbating, the world is in dire need of countries making a coordinated effort to put carbon dioxide emissions to a stop by 2050, which can only be done if the use of fossil fuels is ceased. If this is achieved, we would be able to stop warming at the 1.5-degree level.
There is no room for mistake or apathy at this point, as a failure in immediate action entails an unfathomable increase in temperatures as compared to the pre-industrial era. Each additional degree carries the burden of irreversible damage to the planet. As for us, we must wait and see as to how countries respond to this report and subsequently meet at Glasgow for a UN summit in November to discuss the reduction of emissions. The climate crisis is the defining challenge of our generation, the only question is- can we win this race?