People are now living with the repercussions of centuries of greenhouse gas emissions, and the climate catastrophe is no longer a looming danger.
There is still a lot to fight for. How the world responds in the coming years will have far-reaching consequences for future generations.
I imagine two contrasting scenarios of the future in my book “System Change Not Climate Change” which is going to complete in this year. One in which we do very little to combat climate change, and one in which we do everything possible to combat climate change.
The twenty-first century comes to a conclusion with no action taken to combat climate change. Temperatures have climbed by more than 4°C globally. Summer temperatures in many countries consistently exceed 40°C. In tropical places, heat waves with temperatures as high as 50°C have become common.
Wildfires rage throughout every continent except Antarctica every summer, producing clouds of toxic smoke that make breathing outside intolerable, resulting in an annual health disaster.
The temperature of the ocean has risen substantially. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia has been pronounced dead as a result of repeated bleaching occurrences
Droughts ravage large swaths of the Earth’s surface on a regular basis and for long periods of time. The world’s deserts have grown in size, displacing millions of people. Around 3.5 billion people live in locations where demand for water exceeds.
Dust blown up by now-barren cropland is a new major source of air pollution outside of congested cities.
Every summer, the Arctic is ice-free. As a result, average temperatures in the far north have climbed by more than 8°C. The ice sheets of Greenland and Western Antarctica have begun to melt, sending vast amounts of freshwater into the oceans.
The majority of mountain glaciers have melted altogether. Ice skating is now primarily an indoor activity performed on massive artificial slopes. The ice on the Himalayan plateau has melted, lowering the flows of the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Yamuna rivers, which provide water to roughly 600 million people.
Sea levels have risen by more than a metre as a result of water from melting ice sheets. Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro, and Miami, for example, are already inundated and unusable. Many small island states, including the Maldives, Marshall Islands, and Tuvalu, have been abandoned.
The Nile Delta, the Rhine Valley, and Thailand are among the many coastal and river places that are regularly inundated. Over a 1/4 of Bangladesh is under flood regularly.
Winter storms are more powerful and produce more water, resulting in widespread wind damage and floods every year.
Tropical cyclones are becoming more powerful every year, affecting tens of millions of people. Mega-cyclones, such as Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, have grown increasingly common, with sustained winds of more than 200 mph.
The monsoons in Southeast Asia have intensified and become more unpredictable, bringing either too much or too little rain to each region, affecting the lives of almost three billion people.
Food and water scarcity have become more widespread over the world, putting billions of people’s health and well-being at risk. The number of days in which it is impossible to work outside has increased tenfold in the tropics and subtropics, reducing farm productivity.
Heat waves and droughts, as well as storms and floods, are killing thousands of people and displacing millions. Epidemics wreaked havoc on the twentieth century, spreading across impoverished and vulnerable societies.
This is how the world would look if we did everything we could to stop climate change.
Global temperatures had climbed to 1.5°C by 2050, and would remain there for the rest of the century. Fossil fuels have been replaced with renewable energy. More than a trillion trees have been planted to absorb CO2. The air has been cleaner than it has ever been since the beginning of the industrial revolution.
Cities have been reconstructed with all-electric public transportation and vibrant green spaces. Many new buildings have photovoltaic skins that generate solar energy and green roofs that cool cities and make them more livable.
Many of the world’s biggest cities are connected by high-speed electric trains that reach speeds over 300 mph. Intercontinental flights continue to operate, with huge, efficient planes powered by synthetic kerosene generated from mixing water and carbon dioxide pulled directly from the atmosphere.
Meat consumption has decreased globally. During the move from industrial-scale meat production to plant-based subsistence, farming productivity has substantially improved, allowing more land to be rewilded and reforested.
The natural biosphere and its ecological functions are being restored on half of the planet. Aside from that, fusion energy has finally been put to work on a large scale, bringing limitless clean energy to the people of the twenty-first century
Futures with dramatically different outcomes. What decisions you make now will impact the history you leave to your children and grandchildren. Fortunately, the solutions I propose are win-win, if not win-win: they reduce emissions, improve the environment, and generally make people healthier and wealthier.