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As they meet in Glasgow, Scotland, to tackle climate change, the world’s leaders have it in their power to change the planet to a point that might make Earth unrecognizable to humans today. All they need do is carry on as usual: promise to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but fail to do actually cut them.
And new research calculated to concentrate their minds now offers a snapshot of what the planet might look like by 2500 if they don’t act with sufficient vigour. If nations allow fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions to go on rising until they peak in 2080, and only then begin to decline, the world may go on heating, to become too hot for a high proportion of its inhabitants.
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Before 500 years have elapsed, the Amazon rainforest could be a barren surface covered by sunbaked soil. Large parts of India could be uninhabitable. Much of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Southeast Asia, northern Australia, and much of Indonesia and the Philippines could be subject to “strong heat stress” for more than half the year.
The American Midwest and its Corn Belt—breadbasket for much of the planet—could be at temperatures too high for human comfort, and more hospitable to novel crops tended perhaps by drones, according to research in the journal Global Change Biology. The land available for topical staples such as rice, cassava, taro, and so on will shrink by 15%; the terrain that can cope with wheat, potatoes, soybean, and maize will have shrunk by almost one fifth. This, of course, is on a time horizon far beyond all normal political calculation, and on the assumption that the promises made six years ago by 195 nations meeting in Paris are not kept.
“We need to envision the Earth our children and grandchildren may face, and what we can do now to make it livable for them,” said lead author Christopher Lyon, a UK scientist now working at McGill University in Montreal. “If we fail to meet the Paris Agreement goals, and emissions keep rising, many places in the world will dramatically change.”
Climate determines geography: recent research has established that climate change driven by human exploitation of fossil fuels can alter the physical contours of the continents. A new study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters has found that, between 2003 and 2018, the loss of ice from the melting Arctic has not only permitted the rocks beneath to start rising, but caused a kind of tiny pattern of crustal deformation across much of the northern hemisphere. The measurements suggest that this movement is on average no higher than 0.4 millimetres a year, but it is yet another indicator of the global impact of climate change.
That’s not all. Recent research has also demonstrated that human-induced shifts of water from the ice caps to the oceans has affected the planet’s spin on its axis as it orbits the sun: quite literally, it has altered the rate and direction of the drift of the North and South Poles.
And a fresh study has even identified a dimming of the planet’s shine: any observer on Venus or Mars could, according to a finding in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, observe a decrease in the capacity of the Earth to reflect sunlight. Thanks again to climate change, the cloud cover over the warming oceans has changed in the last 20 years to diminish the reflective low-lying clouds, according to a study of satellite data. This dimming of Earthshine is likely to mean that Earth’s atmosphere and oceans could absorb even more solar radiation. If so, this could ramp up global heating even further.
Researchers have already warned that that sea levels will continue to rise, long after humans stop burning fossil fuels, thanks to the staying power of carbon dioxide released from fossil fuels into the atmosphere. And yet another study has shown that the same level of global heating has already extended the northern hemisphere summer: by the end of the century, summers, considered simply as the hottest 25% of the year, could last for six months or more.
So climate change driven by human action is changing the planet’s seasons; the tilt of the planet’s axis; the shape of continental rocks; the gleam of the blue planet across the solar system; the reach of the ever-rising tides; and now, the human geography of the continents for centuries to come.
All of which presents the world’s leaders with a huge challenge in Glasgow at COP 26, the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties.
To achieve a declared goal of limiting global temperature rise by 2100 to “well below” 2°C, the nations must act on past promises: must take drastic steps to cut fossil fuel use while funding only sustainable economic growth, and while helping the poorest nations to develop and move swiftly to renewable energy. They must also agree on effective ways to protect the planet’s forests and other natural ecosystems, and on how to cooperate in reducing the levels of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.
Although the real work is always conducted by negotiating teams, one index of a conference’s perceived urgency is the number and status of the leaders and heads of state who attend. The presidents of China and the Russian Federation have already declared that they will not attend. For health reasons, even the host nation’s head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, cannot attend. This may not be an omen, but if the conference fails, it will begin to seem like one.
And the pressure to act with urgency will remain, because without action—as the latest study makes clear—in the long run, the world’s climate could become “potentially dangerous and disruptive” to humans.
“The Paris Agreement, the United Nations, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s assessment reports, all show us what we need to do before 2100 to meet our goals, and what could happen if we don’t,” Lyon said. “But this benchmark which has been used for 30 years is shortsighted, because people born now will only be in their 70s by 2100.”
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