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Home-School Education
Hong Kong

University of Durham
Bachelor of Science
United Kingdom

University of Sussex

Master of Arts
United Kingdom

Writing - Commentary

Six Degrees - Our Future on a Hotter Planet




                        Global warming is undoubtedly one of the most important and debated issues of this era. Many are becoming aware that uncontrolled warming – caused mainly by human-based CO2 emissions – will bring undesirable effects. Yet what exactly can we expect to face in an increasingly hotter world? In his book Six Degrees – Our Future on a Hotter Planet, Mark Lynas shows the potentially devastating impacts of global warming, as predicted by scientific studies. Essentially, it is a compilation of the potential changes that warming by up to 6°C may cause. This six-degree range is based on the IPCC’s 2001 estimates of potential temperature rise by 2100 for different projected scenarios.

Predictions on Global Warming’s Effects

                        The nature and extent of the consequences associated with each degree rise varies (but they all tend to be negative). Still, they can be loosely grouped into three basic categories for convenience (although these effects ultimately involve various interrelated factors, whether directly or indirectly).

                        The first and rather obvious category is weather-related changes. Rising temperatures affects the atmosphere and hydrological cycle, thus strengthening storms and altering rainfall patterns. These changes in turn are projected to cause more flooding and longer droughts across the globe. Some studies show that Western Europe can expect cycles of flooding and drought in the future. The heat itself would directly lead to more extremely hot days and increased heat wave duration. As a result, areas including Southern Europe and the Mediterranean will become especially dry. In addition, specific climate zones typically associated with certain latitudes may be entirely repositioned.

                        The second category is of the changes to the Earth’s geographic features. Even now, higher temperatures are melting polar ice, glaciers, and permafrost at mostly unprecedented levels. The former two, along with the thermal expansion of water, leads to rising sea levels. Low-lying coastal areas or islands like the Maldives may eventually vanish. Warming-caused droughts combined with altered rain patterns will also exacerbate desertification, as topsoil are dried and washed away by heavy but infrequent storms. In fact, some studies project expansions of current major deserts plus a new one in a devastated Amazon rainforest.

                        As the physical world is altered (often drastically) by warming, its living inhabitants will inevitably be disturbed as well. The third category accounts for such ecological changes. A warmer planet will leave many species in alien conditions on short notice. Deprived of their usual habitats, many species may fail to adapt and survive, which further damages ecosystems. Marine species, for example, can face a great crisis as warmer oceans become more acidic and contain less oxygen. Acidic conditions kill plankton, a key primary producer without which whole oceanic food chains can collapse. The Amazon rainforest and Great Barrier Reef, both crucial ecosystems, will face destruction as temperature rises. Overall, global warming may further worsen what some regard as Earth’s sixth mass extinction. One study estimates that just a two degree temperature rise can wipe out a third of existing species by 2050.

                        Against this projected and gloomy environmental backdrop, humans (as expected) will also suffer as well. As temperature rises, many areas will face shortages in water, arable and habitable land. Whole populations will be displaced, and conflicts may arise as people compete for reduced resources. Lynas expects that humanity will be able to survive as a whole, but many will unquestionably die.

                        Although the book mostly used predictive scientific studies, there are some paleontological ones about Earth’s earlier warm periods. Through these, we can see how previous warm conditions have emerged and find clues about how our current warming might proceed. What these studies showed was certainly not encouraging. At the extreme, an episode of gradual CO2 accumulation caused a six-degree warming, which nearly wiped out all life. Additionally, this past event’s warming rates were actually slower than they are today.

Avoiding Runaway Warming

                        Lynas has also pointed out two important factors that may lead to a perfect storm for Earth. First, human-caused environmental destruction has already weakened Earth’s systems self-regulation, leaving it even more vulnerable to global warming’s destabilizing effects. Second, initial warming can activate various positive feedback mechanisms in nature, causing further warming effects. Left unchecked, this can lead to runaway global warming, where the temperature rises regardless of what we do.

                        In the last chapter, Lynas states that even the six-degree range may actually be off the mark. Because of technical uncertainties in current climate projection models, the maximum temperature rise may be more than six degrees. Plus, a one degree rise may already be unavoidable, as the Earth systems only respond slowly to any changes. Hence our current goal, Lynas argues, is to limit warming to two degrees. This could prevent the worst consequences from happening and prevent runaway warming – which appears to begin at a three-degree rise.

                        To accomplish this, our CO2 emissions (the principle cause of warming) alone must peak by 2015, and drop by 85%by 2050. In turn, this may require that all nations adopt a so-called “Contraction & Convergence” scheme: all participants’ CO2 emissions will be contracted to an equal, sustainable level. Certainly there are large obstacles, including our reliance on fossil fuels, our own denial and unwillingness to change. While there are a range of possible methods (like renewable energies) for reducing CO2 emissions, Lynas asserts that the true solution lies in using all of them simultaneously. Whether we have the social and political will to implement them all is unknown. Indeed, our current social pressures and trends seem to point in the opposite, materialistic direction.

                        Regardless, Lynas believes that a low CO2 life – possibly one aided by government-imposed CO2 restrictions – will lead to a better society that emphasizes our quality of life. He concludes by admitting that he has no idea what it would resemble exactly. However, at least it would be a world where a six-degree rise scenario is simply a nightmare.

Widespread Inaction against Far-reaching Potential Effects

                        In terms of the impacts, the book highlights how far-reaching warming’s effects can be. Almost all levels of Earth’s systems are affected, often in destructive or life-unfriendly ways. But even with such unfavorable predictions on the table, society seems to be carrying out its business as usual. As of this writing, the year is 2013, leaving only two years left before Lynas’ target of peak CO2 emissions by 2015. From what I have heard (or lack thereof), mankind seems nowhere near achieving this target. Hence it may be justified to pessimistically assume that a three-degree temperature rise and runaway warming are inevitable.

                        Of course, Lynas’ and scientists’ dire predictions can turn out to be wrong, or at least slightly inaccurate. Yet with the stakes so high, can we afford the risk? With so many data indicating a rather unpleasant future in all corners of the world, the best option is to reduce emissions anyway. As Lynas mentioned, it would be an inexcusable crime for us to reduce or even end life (human or otherwise) on Earth.

                      So what should we do now to feasibly restrain CO2 emissions and warming to two-degrees? To be frank, I have no clue. This is a massive problem, one compounded by various forms of denial and behavioral inertia. If all individuals can live low-carbon lives, we would not have a problem. Yet there is no appreciable will to reduce our emissions anywhere in society today. Supposedly, governments have the power to implement or impose measures that work against warming. Restrictions on CO2 emissions are a direct and effective solution. Greater investment shifts to carbon-reducing methods ranging from renewable energy to better conservation will definitely help.

                        However, these measures can be unpopular, at least in the short run. They may inhibit economic growth, or hurt the benefits of certain parties (companies selling fossil fuels are obvious examples). As officials and politicians’ agenda are greatly influenced by their constituents’ demands, it again falls back to the individual level. If the collective public does not demand or even opposes warming-inhibiting measures, there will be few to no incentives to implement them. Perhaps the surest way to rouse support for action against global warming is for us to start experiencing its consequences. But by then, it may be already too late to do anything as runaway global warming kicks in.

A more Active Role for Scientists?

                        While reading this book, I cannot help but wonder how scientists studying global warming’s impacts actually feel. Surely they would not be cheered by their growing collection of predicted negative consequences. So far, scientists have diligently fulfilled an important role: reporters of dire facts and possibilities. Yet if their own predictions are any guide, direct and definite action will be required to avert potential disasters. At this stage, the problem has been identified: global warming from rampant CO2 emissions. The next step is to find and implement solutions. While we have come up quite a few methods for lowering emissions, the implementation part has yielded few results. For scientists, simply informing a reluctant public about their discoveries may no longer be enough to produce change.

                        Scientists, out of all people, understand most clearly the effects of a warmer planet. If anyone, they should be the ones to advocate for serious emission reductions and other methods themselves. They should actively engage with governments, highlight warming’s expected impacts and urge them to reduce emissions. In terms of direct remedies, technological developments in renewable energies and energy efficiency can already help reduce CO2 emissions. Perhaps scientists should also take the initiative to work out guidelines for how societies can transition to less carbon-intensive lives. Of course, politicians and experts from other fields must participate in this process for any resultant plans to be feasible and acceptable.

                        The above suggestions can be potentially useful in motivating humanity stop global warming. Even then, everything still depends on the main crucial issue: whether societies are actually willing to change. Undeniably, it will be one of the most significant challenges that humanity will face in this century. The worrying thing is that no one (myself included) seems to have any method to resolve it.

                                                                                                                                                                  Mike Ko
                                                                                                                                                                  ( 1,676 words )


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