Copyright 2016 Suzanne Chew
Published by Suzanne Chew at Shakespir
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Table of Contents
Chapter One – The Basics
What does climate change mean?
A better way to describe it might be climate disruption, because of just how fast it’s marching, and how it threatens to disrupt life on our planet.
This is the man-made warming of our planet, where temperatures have risen by over 1 degree Celsius since the pre-industrial age. That’s the global average rise so far – in the Arctic, temperatures have already warmed by over 2 degrees Celsius. Over in the United States and Australia, record-breaking daily high temperatures are now happening twice as often as low ones.
Worldwide, 2015 has been the hottest year on record. Will this year shatter all records?
How could it possibly be us?
Some of us don’t think we have the power to change our planet – surely it must be a natural cycle caused by the Sun, the Earth’s orbit, or maybe by volcanoes? It’s true that these have caused changes in our climate millions of years ago.
But, the science is crystal clear – this time, we’re the ones responsible. How do we know for sure? There are two undeniable fingerprints.
First, the sheer speed of warming! Nothing in our prehistoric past has caused warming quite this fast, over mere decades instead of thousands or millions of years. Evolution can’t keep up, and life on Earth is struggling to adapt this quickly.
Second, the vast amounts of greenhouse gases we’ve pumped and dumped into our air. Did you know that compared to 1750, the air you and I breathe today is 40% higher in carbon dioxide, 150% higher in methane, and 20% higher in nitrous oxide?
That’s not including fluorinated gases, some of the most potent greenhouse gases! These are entirely man-made, and some of them take over 50,000 years to break down in the atmosphere.
Where are they found? They’re right in our homes and offices, where we use them in our fridges, chillers and air-conditioners.
Just how much warming are our greenhouse gases creating?
Scientists have been able to measure just how much warming each greenhouse gas causes. Did you know that 1 tonne of methane causes as much warming as 80 tonnes of carbon dioxide, over a period of twenty years?
Nitrous oxide causes over 250 times as much warming as a tonne of carbon dioxide, while fluorinated gases cause anywhere from a few thousand times, to over 20,000 times as much warming.
Just how fast are we warming up?
Scientists have carefully measured and recorded the inexorable rise of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere since the Industrial Age.
In 1850, the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere was around 290 parts per million. Today, that’s risen to over 400 parts per million.
What happens when we include all the greenhouse gases? This gives us a greenhouse gas concentration equivalent to over 430 parts per million!
What’s a safe level of greenhouse gas concentration?
Scientists state this would be around 350 parts per million.
Bringing our atmosphere back down to this level and stabilizing here would lock us into warming of around 1.5 degrees Celsius. The Paris Agreement agreed on this as an aspirational goal, while reiterating the pledge to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius.
What does this mean? For a two-in-three chance of meeting this pledge, we need to stabilize our emissions concentration at 450 parts per million.
How much time do we have left?
Is it too late? All those greenhouse gases we’re still pumping and dumping into the air accumulate like a thick blanket, retaining more and more heat.
Between 1870 and 2011, we’ve pumped in emissions of 1890 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.
To put this into perspective, we can only pump in 630 – 1180 gigatonnes more between 2011 and 2100. This gives us a 66% chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius.
In 2010, we pumped in 49 gigatonnes of greenhouse gases, almost double what we dumped just a few decades prior in 1970. At this rate, we’ll exhaust what’s left of our 2 degrees Celsius carbon budget in around 13 to 24 years.
If the climate was a pie, we’d have just over a quarter left before we run out of pie to eat!
How fast do we need to act?
Scientific models show that we have a narrow window to turn the game around! What’s the deadline? 2030.
Climate action in the past few decades so far has been a game of two steps forward, one step back. By the deadline, we need to be headed full-throttle towards a low-carbon world, or risk losing sight of the 2 degrees Celsius goal.
Over the next fourteen years, mankind needs to stop taking slow steps. Instead, we need to take a giant leap to a brave new world.
Chapter Two – The Impacts
What has justice got to do with it?
Everything! One way to think about climate change is through the lens of climate justice, across time and space! Time, because this is about generational justice. Space, because it’s just as much about geographic justice.
What’s generational justice?
Choosing not to act on climate change is like happily spending past our credit limit, and feeling the pain at the end of the month when the debts pile up! The older ones among us might not be around when the worst of the creditors come to collect, but who will be left with the bill?
Without clear climate action, what kind of a chaotic world will our young people today have to live in?
What’s geographic justice?
Who’s paying the price? Most of us will be, but some much more than others. How come?
It’s down to geography. People living at the tropics or near the equator are already surviving at the upper end of temperatures the human body was designed to tolerate. As it continues to warm, these people will be the first to feel it compared to others at cooler latitudes.
Millions of people living close to sea level will also be among the first to suffer as water encroaches upon their homes. Think about small-island states being washed away, low-lying cities open to stronger waves and flooding and cliff-side homes eroding into the sea.
The injustice is that many of these countries most at risk due to poor geography, were barely involved with creating the problem of climate change in the first place – they’re just the unlucky ones paying the price for someone else’s mess.
How will climate change impact weather patterns?
We’re already seeing the impacts of climate change, which will only continue to accelerate and worsen. Extreme weather, like heatwaves and droughts, floods and snowstorms, are already becoming more commonplace, and are expected to increase in frequency.
Changes in rainfall and other factors mean that dry regions are expected to get drier and wet regions wetter. This means more droughts, and more flooding.
How will climate change impact our wild spaces and wildlife?
Did you know that the ocean's acidity is now rising faster than it's ever done in the past 65 million years? Our oceans are already 26% more acidic from absorbing excess carbon dioxide from the air. It’s started to stress our corals, oysters, mussels and other marine life.
What about our wildlife, won’t they adapt? Many species are trying hard, but climate change is happening too fast for them to keep up. With spring coming earlier, birds are nesting sooner, and butterflies are arriving ahead of schedule. Many won’t make it, and it’s not just about our polar bears (although research expects that only one-third of them will survive to 2050).
Up to one-third of our plant and animal species are not likely to survive warming of 2 to 3 degrees Celsius. How are they coping? They’ve already started running – up cool mountains or poleward toward cooler lands. What about slow-pokes like trees, plants, frogs and little mammals? They’re likely to be left behind.
How will climate change affect our food and water?
We all depend on clean water. Did you know that every degree of warming pushes another 7% of us closer to water scarcity? By 2050, around the time when our kids reach our age, it’s likely that a billion people will be living in cities with water shortages.
What about our food? Take fish for example. With a warming of 2 degrees Celsius, global fish stocks are expected to fall, but unequally. By 2055, high-latitude regions are expected to catch 30% to 70% more fish.
Where are these fish coming from? They’re escaping waters that are becoming too hot for them to handle, such as in the warming tropics. These include small island nations and poor countries in Asia, Africa and South America, where catch is expected to fall by 40% to 60%. China, Japan and South Korea might be more resilient in adapting to these changes, but may still be harmed.
What about our crops? Crop harvests are another example, as many cereal crops react poorly to high temperatures. Did you know that because the tropics are already so hot, all it takes is for it to warm by 1 to 2 degrees Celsius for harvests to worsen?
Rice harvests in China are expected to fall by 10% with 1 degree Celsius warming; double that at 3 degrees Celsius. However, longer growing seasons are expected in the cold North, like Russia, Canada and northern Europe; even Finland by the end of this century!
Who made this mess?
Research by the World Resources Institute showed that the United States and the European Union pumped in over half of the total carbon dioxide dumped into the atmosphere between 1850 and 2011. In comparison, China, the world’s factory, pumped in 11% over this same period.
What about today? The Norwegian University of Science and Technology recently published research which calculated our average carbon footprint, based on household consumption.
Crucially, this includes the emissions incurred in making the goods and services we consume. What does this mean? If the product was made for you to use, the emissions from making it accrue to you, the consumer – not the factory worker. What did they find?
Worldwide, the average footprint was calculated to be 3.4 tonnes. Which countries are much higher than this? The average footprint of a person in the United States is 18.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. In Australia, this is 17.7 tonnes; in Canada, it’s 14.6 tonnes, in the United Kingdom, it’s 13.3 tonnes; in Denmark, it’s 12.2 tonnes.
In contrast, over in India, it’s 0.8 tonnes; in Indonesia, it’s 1.3 tonnes; in China it’s 1.8 tonnes.
What does all this mean? Historically, the burden of responsibility for the impacts of climate change lies on many developed nations. These countries built their wealth on extractivist, fossil-fuel based economies, and even today, their carbon footprint continues to be much higher.
Open, global trade means that while some of these countries are taking great strides in shifting to new economies based on clean energy, their high consumption culture simply means that the carbon emissions are exported. Where are they exported to? To countries keen to climb the material wealth ladder through industrialization and mass manufacturing, based on the same, flawed fossil-fuel-based model.
Chapter Three – The Solutions
Do we have the solutions?
The good news is, we already have the solutions we need – we just need to deploy them hard and fast! Instead of waiting for the next great invention to save us without getting off our sofas, we have an array of simple, robust and proven solutions that can do the job.
What’s the catch? They just take a lot of hard work in ways that many of us are not willing to do, especially if we see no one else taking it seriously.
What does decarbonization mean?
Let’s start with the most fundamental solution – decarbonizing our energy. What does this mean? Driving our growth through clean, renewable sources like wind and solar power, as well as other low-carbon sources like geothermal, tidal, biomass, hydro and nuclear power. If carbon capture and storage technology can be scaled up, this could even cut the carbon from using fossil fuel power.
In 2010, around 30% of our electricity came from low-carbon sources. To stay on track for a 2 degrees Celsius limit, scientists project that this needs to grow to 80% by 2050.
Did you know that more than half of the oil we used in 2010 was poured straight into our ships, planes, cars and trucks? To decarbonize, we can substitute these with renewable biofuels and switch to sexy electric vehicles running on clean power!
Decarbonizing is tough, not least because we continue to consume energy at an accelerating rate! Moderating our energy demand, until we can rely on renewables to power us, would greatly help our low-carbon transition.
How does smarter design help?
Less energy and less emissions, but with the same or better quality? Yes, please! Think energy-efficient fridges, TVs, air-cons and washing machines. Smart thermostats for the home. Low-carbon cement made from waste ash. Skyscrapers with roof gardens, efficient lighting, cooling and heating, made with bricks baked in the sun instead of in blazing kilns.
How do smarter ways of doing business help?
How do we maximize use from the things we already have? Through the sharing economy, with smarter business models that benefit those willing to share their homes, cars, offices, and other things we own.
How do we minimize resources used to make new things we need? Through the circular economy, with smarter business operations that close the loop by designing for re-use and repair, and responsibility during disposal.
What about energy efficiency?
Did you know that one-third of the global energy we use is lost as waste heat? Data centres, the backbone of our Internet, could use dynamic power management to cut their intensive energy needs. Iron, steel and cement plants churn out oodles of waste heat that could be recovered, saving power.
Energy efficiency is such a valuable resource, Europe calls it their “first fuel” – why? Efficiency measures they have put in place in the past now save more energy each year than the energy they consume from any other fuel. Its cost-effectiveness, fast results, profitability in a growing market and widespread applicability means that any home or office can immediately be part of the solution.
What about how we produce our food?
Agriculture could move away from industrial farming practices such as mono-cultures and intensive chemical fertilizers, towards regenerative practices which restore healthy soils that store more carbon and hold more water. These practices also include generating energy from livestock waste, which reduces methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
What about smarter industrial processes?
Here are some examples:
Did you know that factories that make nylon and synthetic fertilizers are based on chemical processes that release nitrous oxide, which is 265 times more potent than carbon dioxide? Technology to capture and destroy this gas before it’s vented is readily available today, and would only cost 10 to 40 eurocents to get rid of each tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent.
Did you also know that many of the refrigerants in our air-cons and fridges are fluorinated gases, which are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide? These f-gases might start leaking in our homes, or in landfills and scrap yards – but what if producers used low-carbon refrigerants instead, or safely recovered the gas at the point of disposal?
How do we reduce the greenhouse gases already out there?
By going green and brown! This is where forests and peatlands, our natural stores of carbon, come in.
According to the FAO, between 1990 and 2015, we’ve lost around 129 million hectares of forest. How might we turn the tide? Through intensive afforestation to replace what’s gone, sustainable management of the forests we have left, and preventing further deforestation.
Many people are unaware that peatlands use only 3% of our land, but lock up 550 billion tonnes of carbon, more than all the trees in the world! Yet, these are often cleared by burning to make space for new developments – new buildings, new farms, new roads.
Preventing peatland clearing and burning, and restoring peat bogs that have already been drained, are ways we can preserve these large stores of carbon from escaping.
What about geoengineering?
Geoengineering – this means controlling the climate to slow down warming, either through reflecting the Sun’s energy or removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Have you heard of the idea to burn our skies with sulphuric acid? This would create a global haze to block out the Sun, reducing warming at the cost of cutting solar energy potential, worsening our ozone layer, and changing rainfall patterns worldwide. Ideas like this at the planetary scale are highly uncertain. Such fixes would also only serve to buy us time, as they don’t solve the root cause of climate change. Is it worth the gamble?
Another approach, carbon capture and storage or ‘CCS’, relies on capturing carbon dioxide and storing it deep underground, making sure none leaks out. Theoretically, CCS could be retrofitted into our existing fossil power plants and high-emissions industries such as cement, iron and steel plants, to buy us more time for these sectors transition to low-carbon alternatives. But, CCS is still in its infancy with a few pilot projects, and still has far to go to reach the massive scale-up needed worldwide.
What role can citizens and consumers play?
The role that each of us plays might be the most important, yet toughest, solution we have. Recent research by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology estimates that more than 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to household consumption choices.
Where do most household emissions come from? How we travel, the energy we use at home, and what we eat. What does this tell us? That how we choose to live determines, in part, the kind of world built around meeting our growing demands – for the latest big-screen TV, new gas-guzzling car, meat with every meal.
Making changes to how and what we consume is admirable, but only one side of who we are! We often forget that all of us are also citizens with power.
As citizens, what can we do? Acting on climate change calls for a deep transformation in how we live and work, to encourage the rapid deployment of the solutions we have.
Vote for the party that acts on climate change. Organize our communities to speak with one voice for climate action. Build awareness in our schools, neighbourhoods and workplaces.
Join the race! There’s hope to change the future, especially with all the solutions we have on the table in front of us! The next fourteen years till 2030 are crucial, when we still have a choice.
Here are some questions and thought experiments to ponder:
What does your carbon footprint look like?
What meaningful way might you start changing how much of a footprint you leave behind?
Imagine your children all grown up. How has climate change shaped their opportunities, challenges and lives? How much influence do you have to change their future?
Imagine you are the leader of a country deeply affected by climate change. How would you fight for the future of your countrymen? How would you feel?
Imagine you are the leader of a country that has contributed much to climate change. Would you fight to pollute what remaining clean climate we have? Or how might you lead the way forwards?
2030 is the deadline for sustained, urgent climate action. How old will you be then? When you look back on your life, will you have you been part of the solution or the problem?
Are you a citizen, consumer, parent, student, employer and/or entrepreneur? How do these roles you play empower you to imagine and build the future you want?
About the Author
Suzanne Chew is the founder of Little Climate, a social enterprise focused on bringing home the climate message to the masses, in fun and unconventional ways to get people excited about the potential for change! She is also the author of the book of cartoons “Little Climate: We need to talk about climate disruption”, and has been working in the climate change field since 2007, focused on scaling up low-carbon projects. Suzanne graduated from Imperial College London with an undergraduate degree in Physics and a postgraduate degree in Environmental Technology. Read more about Suzanne at the Little Climate website:
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Little Climate: We Need to Talk About Climate Disruption
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P.S.: Think you know all about climate change? Test just how much you actually know, take our 15-question Climate Quiz!
Ever wanted to learn about climate change in an afternoon over tea and biscuits? Now you can, with this super-short speed read (that's also free)! Filled with engaging 'Frequently Asked Questions' and funny cartoons, this book will whet your appetite to save the world! What will you get out of it? You'll have a firm grasp of the important basics every citizen needs to know, and a clear idea of what's at stake. Most of all, you'll gain insight into the solutions we have today and how we might rise up to this challenge. Read this free book, and you can decide for yourself just what part you'd choose to play in making our brave new future.