Last week a New York Times article went viral on social media. The article called attention to the reprogramming of a clock in New York’s Union Square to show the amount of time we have to change our ways before the effects of climate change become irreversible. The clock reads a little over 7 years. It is very encouraging to see an art installation that calls attention to climate change hit the mainstream. There is only one problem. We already have done irreversible damage to our environment.
The clock in New York City is based on calculations done by the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change. These calculations are focused on the “carbon budget” which is an estimated amount of CO2 that can be emitted into the atmosphere and keep the average warming of the earth under 1.5 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately it is already too late to hope for an average warming goal under 1.5 degrees. The estimates are also based on our current emissions rate, so, if we start curbing our emissions it will begin to extend the clock; however, if we continue to increase them, our time will shorten.
To non climate scientists, 1.5℃ might not seem like a lot, but when we are talking about average global temperatures, it can have a big impact. In the 1.5 case scenario (which is our most optimistic forecast) the year 2100 will consist of: a half a meter rise in sea level, 149% increase of extreme warms, 17% increase in extreme rainfall, increase of average drought length by 2 months, average crop yield decrease of 6%, and many more troubling impacts (carbonbrief.org). This is all without taking into account the compounding effects of decrease in ice coverage leading to increased absorbing of solar energy.
With those changes will also bring a large number of climate migrants. A climate migrant is anyone who is incentivized or forced to move because of climate change. This can occur because of increased temperatures, rising sea level, or increase in frequency and intensity of natural disasters such as floods and droughts. It is estimated that by 2050 there will be 143 million climate migrants, in 2017 this number was estimated to be 22 million. There are climate migrants right here in Minneapolis.
If by some miracle we stopped emitting carbon tomorrow, would we be out of danger? The short answer is no. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years before returning back to its natural cycle. There is also a lag of about 40 years between when carbon is emitted to when the global temperature climbs. So even if we were able to go carbon neutral today, temperatures would still rise for the next several decades and then stabilize there for thousands of years.
It is difficult for us humans to grasp the damage we are causing when we don’t directly see its impacts for so long. But, just because we struggle to wrap our heads around it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. This is not to say that it is too late to have any impact at all. In fact quite the opposite, changes that are made now will not only help us achieve our most optimistic climate goals but they will also get the ball rolling on the next decade of reform that needs to happen.
The climate is changing now. Eight of the hottest ten years in recorded history have happened in this decade, and all ten have occurred since 1998. Rates of hurricanes, droughts, floods, wildfires, and severe storms are all increasing along with their severity. We may have seven years before our carbon budget runs out but we can not wait that long to take action, the earth needs us now.
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