I believed that the majority of us would perish due to the climate emergency. I was mistaken.
According to the Independent in 2015, experts predict a potential increase of 6 degrees Celsius in global temperatures by the year 2100. They are urging for immediate action to be taken before the UN meeting in Paris.
A world with an average temperature 6 degrees Celsius higher than the current would be catastrophic. This temperature increase is just an average, and some regions would experience even hotter temperatures, especially at the poles. The consequences would be far-reaching, with failed crops, widespread malnutrition, and the transformation of forests into savannahs. Entire island nations would be submerged, and many cities would be lost to rising sea levels. Climate refugees would be forced to flee their homes. In many parts of the world, what is currently considered a “normal” temperature would become unbearable. Even the wealthiest nations would face devastating floods and scorching summers. The risk of triggering dangerous warming feedback loops would be greatly increased, as melted ice would reflect less sunlight, permafrost could release methane from the ocean floor, and dying forests would no longer absorb carbon from the atmosphere. A 6 degree Celsius warmer world would likely quickly escalate into 8 or even 10 degrees Celsius, causing a massive humanitarian crisis.
Just a couple of years back, I believed this was our inevitable future. The idea of limiting warming to 1.5C or 2C seemed far-fetched as we were on track for 4C, 5C, or even 6C. Many still hold this belief. Fortunately, that is not the case.
In 2015, I attended the renowned climate conference, Cop21, in Paris. Delegates and policymakers from all nations convened to negotiate a new climate treaty. The previous objective of the international agreement was to prevent the global average temperature from rising above 2C by the end of the century. I was surprised to hear rumors about discussions on setting a target of 1.5C. Was it just wishful thinking? I had already lost hope in achieving the 2C goal. It seemed unattainable. The idea of limiting the rise to 1.5C appeared unrealistic. Nonetheless, this target was included in the final agreement, mostly as an aspiration. The world committed to “limiting global warming to ‘well below’ 2C above pre-industrial levels and if possible, ‘pursuing’ efforts to cap warming at 1.5C.”
My viewpoint on limiting warming to 1.5C remains largely unchanged. Without a major, unforeseen technological advancement, it is unlikely that we will achieve this goal. Most of the climate scientists I am acquainted with share this sentiment: while they strive for a 1.5C limit, they acknowledge that it is a difficult feat to accomplish. However, this does not deter them from advocating for it; they recognize the significance of even a 0.1C reduction and continue to work towards it. On the other hand, my perspective on reaching 2C has shifted. I am now cautiously optimistic that we can come close to this target. It is more probable than not that we will surpass 2C, albeit only slightly. Yet, there is still a reasonable possibility – if we rise to the challenge – that we can stay below it.
I had a change of perspective after analyzing the data, rather than relying on news headlines. My focus was not on our current state, but on the rate at which things have progressed in recent years and the implications for the future. The Climate Action Tracker is an organization that tracks the climate policies, pledges, and targets of every country and compiles them to predict the future state of the global climate. At Our World in Data, I outline these potential climate trajectories and update them annually. Each time, they align more closely with the necessary pathways to stay below a 2C temperature increase.
If we continue to follow the current climate policies of countries, we can expect a warming of 2.5C to 2.9C. It is important to note that this outcome is unacceptable and must be avoided. Fortunately, many countries have committed to significantly increasing the ambition of their policies. If these commitments are upheld, we can limit the warming to 2.1C by the year 2100.
The most encouraging aspect is the evolution of these routes over time. In the absence of climate policies, we would be on track for a temperature increase of 4C or 5C, at minimum. This is the trajectory that many still believe we are following. It would be a frightening world, to say the least. Fortunately, countries have gradually increased their pledges and efforts. As demonstrated by the success in addressing the ozone layer, even small increments in ambition can have a significant impact.
A significant shift has occurred where transitioning to a sustainable, low-carbon economy is no longer viewed as a sacrifice. In the past, fossil fuels were much less expensive compared to renewable energy sources, and electric vehicles were prohibitively expensive. However, low-carbon technologies are now becoming more competitive in terms of cost. As a result, it is now financially viable to pursue climate-friendly initiatives. Leaders are increasingly optimistic about the evolving landscape, although we still have a ways to go to achieve a 2C pathway. It is crucial that we intensify our efforts promptly, but as the possibility of reaching this goal becomes more attainable, I am confident we can continue to make progress.
When I was a teenager, I believed that most of humanity would succumb to the effects of climate change. I even tried to persuade my peers of this. During my English oral exam, I displayed a map indicating the cities and coastlines that were predicted to submerge by the year 2100. I also shared projected satellite images depicting the widespread wildfires that would devastate our planet. In my attempt to spark their interest, I only added fuel to my own worries.
Upon arriving at Edinburgh University, I was inundated with daily images. Some were from my university lectures, which was to be expected given my degree in earth sciences. However, my passion for environmental sciences was also growing, fueled by the increase in reporting on these issues. As I became more determined to stay informed, the frequency of stories and accompanying videos also increased. I no longer had to imagine the suffering of the victims; I could witness it firsthand. As a conscientious citizen, I felt a responsibility to stay up-to-date on the latest disasters. Turning a blind eye to them felt like a betrayal to those who lost their lives.
As the frequency of disaster reports increased each day, it appeared that the situation was deteriorating. The impact of climate change was causing disasters to become more severe, resulting in a higher number of fatalities than previously seen.
I was mistaken. The issue was that I confused the rise in reporting frequency for a rise in disaster frequency. I confused my secondhand suffering becoming more intense with global suffering intensifying. In truth, I was completely unaware of what was truly occurring. Were disasters becoming more severe? Were there more occurrences this year compared to last? Were there more fatalities than ever before?
I came across the research of Hans Rosling, a physician, statistician, and public speaker from Sweden. Through watching his lectures, I learned that extreme poverty and child mortality rates were decreasing while education and life expectancy were increasing. This led me to question my assumptions and seek out other areas where my beliefs may be incorrect. I began by examining data on natural disasters and would have confidently bet that the number of deaths from these events had increased over the past century. However, I was proven wrong. In fact, the death rates from natural disasters have decreased significantly by approximately ten times since the first half of the 20th century.
I want to clarify that none of the information above suggests that climate change is not occurring. The decrease in fatalities from natural disasters does not indicate a decrease in their severity or frequency. Some individuals may misinterpret this data to undermine the reality and dangers of climate change. However, the data actually tells a different story.
In previous times, it was common for natural disasters to cause millions of fatalities annually. The decades of 1920s, 30s, and 40s were particularly devastating. Multiple powerful earthquakes struck countries such as China, Japan, Pakistan, Turkey, and Italy, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths. The deadliest of these disasters was the 1920 earthquake in China’s Gansu province, which is estimated to have claimed 180,000 lives. However, it was the occurrences of drought and floods that proved to be the most lethal. China experienced several major floods and droughts during the 1920s and 30s, leading to widespread famine and causing millions of deaths at once.
Currently, the yearly number of deaths has decreased significantly, typically ranging from 10,000 to 20,000. However, there are occasions where the toll is significantly greater, such as in 2010 when it surpassed 300,000 due to the catastrophic Haitian earthquake.
Upon viewing these patterns from a wider perspective, I experienced feelings of foolishness and betrayal. I had been misled by an education system that was meant to enlighten me about the world. Despite being a dedicated pupil and receiving accolades for excelling in various subjects such as earth materials and atmospheric science, I was unable to comprehend the trend of increasing disaster-related deaths. My knowledge in areas such as seismic faults and mineral compositions was extensive, but I would have struggled to accurately depict the graph of disaster deaths.
I was not the only one who did not know. The 2017 Gapminder Misconception Study surveyed the public in 14 countries and asked them 12 important questions. One of these questions was:
What has been the trend in the annual death toll from natural disasters in the last 100 years?
a) More than doubled
The situation did not change significantly.
c) Reduced by more than 50%
Only 10% of respondents chose the correct answer, which was c). The majority, 48%, selected a).
In order to address the issue of climate change, we must acknowledge two facts: climate change is occurring and human activities that release greenhouse gases are the cause. There is no time to waste debating the reality of climate change. When I say “we”, I am referring to all of us, working together. The time for discussion is over. Our focus should now be on finding solutions to combat climate change.
We should examine the current status of carbon emissions. Although they are increasing, the global per capita emissions have already reached their highest point a decade ago. However, many people are not aware of this.
2 emissions may be in 2019.
In the year 2012, the average emissions per person reached a peak of 4.9 tonnes. However, since then, there has been a gradual decrease in per capita emissions. While this decrease is not happening quickly enough, it is still a positive sign. It suggests that our overall CO2 emissions may have peaked in 2019, rather than on a per person basis.2
Emissions are on the rise, as is the case with any measurement in a world where the population is continuously increasing. Initially, per capita figures will reach their highest point before a battle ensues between whether our individual impacts will decrease at a faster rate than the population is growing.
We are nearing our goal. Emissions rose quickly in the 1960s and 70s, then again in the 1990s and early 2000s. However, in recent times, this growth has significantly slowed down. In fact, emissions barely increased from 2018 to 2019 and actually decreased in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I am hopeful that we can reach the peak of global emissions in the 2020s.
Rephrasing: Receiving an email from my grandmother brings me immense happiness. Despite being in her mid-80s, she is able to navigate an iPad to view photos and send emails. However, she does not own an iPhone, laptop, or smartwatch. My grandfather also shuns modern technology, except for television. Their lifestyle remains relatively unchanged from a few decades ago.
There is now a noticeable split among generations when it comes to views on climate change. Some believe that the younger generation’s lifestyle is to blame. They spend excessive amounts of time using energy-consuming devices, reside in crowded urban areas with limited access to nature, have a culture of consumerism and lack of repair, and have a tendency to waste food without consideration.
2 per year.
However, my carbon footprint is only half the size of what my grandparents’ was when they were in their 20s. During that time, the average person in the UK released 11 tonnes of CO2 annually.2
Our current annual emissions are now below five tonnes, a significant decrease from previous years. The difference between my carbon footprint and that of my parents is equally substantial. In the UK, emissions remained relatively stable from the 1950s to the 90s, but since then, during my lifetime, there has been a drastic decrease in emissions.
Advancements in technology have enabled this achievement. At the start of the 20th century, coal accounted for the majority of the UK’s energy production, with a continued dominance of over 90% by 1950. However, at present, coal only contributes less than 2% to our electricity supply, and the government has committed to eliminating it entirely by 2025. The birthplace of coal has now significantly decreased its reliance on this resource, with the use of alternative energy sources such as gas, nuclear, and a shift towards wind, solar, and other renewable options.
This means that for each unit of energy we use, we release significantly less CO2 emissions. 2
However, that is not the sole alteration. Our energy usage has also significantly decreased. On a per capita basis, it has dropped by approximately 25% since the 1960s. Every year, we incorporate more efficient devices into our daily routines. Initially, there were advancements in the energy efficiency of household appliances, followed by the trend of replacing outdated lightbulbs. Next, there was the implementation of double-glazed windows and home insulation to prevent heat from escaping. When I was younger, our family’s television, of which we only had one, was a bulky box that appeared to be two meters deep. The screen was so minuscule that you had to sit close to see anything. Our car was a gas-guzzler, but not like the ones we see with SUVs nowadays. My parents would have never purchased one of those. Our car was secondhand and considered a “banger.” It was inefficient, as you could hear the engine roaring and feel it overheating. The fuel efficiency was abysmal.
The significant advancements in technology have resulted in a decrease in energy usage compared to the past, even though our lifestyles may seem more lavish and reliant on energy. The belief that living a low-carbon life requires frugality is incorrect. In the UK, our current emissions are equivalent to those of individuals in the 1850s. Personally, I emit the same amount as my ancestors from several generations ago, despite having a significantly higher quality of life.
However, only a small number of individuals are aware of the decline in emissions. Climate scientist Jonathan Foley conducted a survey on his Twitter followers [currently X] and inquired about the changes in US emissions over the last 15 years.
Increased by over 20%
b) Increased by 10%
c) Remained unchanged
d) Fallen by 20%
A large number of individuals responded. Roughly two-thirds of the participants chose either option a) or b). Only 19% selected the correct answer, d). It is not surprising that people have a negative view of the situation.
Many of us have a tendency to underestimate the speed at which things can evolve. In the past, even experts have been overly negative about the potential of renewable energy. My belief that reaching 2C was unrealistic stemmed from the fact that I couldn’t envision low-carbon energy expanding rapidly enough.
Between 2009 and 2019, there has been a significant shift in the cost of solar photovoltaic and wind energy, with them going from being the most expensive to the least expensive sources. The cost of electricity from solar has dropped by 89%, while onshore wind has decreased by 70%. As a result, they are now more affordable than coal. This means that leaders no longer have to struggle with the decision between addressing climate change and meeting their people’s energy needs. The option of using low-carbon sources is now the more financially viable choice. It is remarkable how rapidly this transformation has occurred.
Less developed nations are not obligated to adhere to the same path that wealthier nations have taken, which heavily relies on fossil fuels and is not sustainable. Instead, they have the opportunity to bypass the lengthy process that we have gone through. This does not mean sacrificing the well-being of their people or access to energy. In reality, by adopting these technologies, they can guarantee that a greater number of individuals have access to affordable energy.
The huge progress being made in developing affordable low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels is just one counter to the doomsday thinking of so much of the climate change conversation. It has become too common to tell kids that they’re going to die from climate change. If a heatwave doesn’t get them, then a wildfire will. Or a hurricane, a flood or mass starvation. There is an intense feeling of anxiety and dread among young people about what the planet has in store for us.
In my book, I explore practical solutions for mitigating climate change and improving human well-being through changes in energy, transportation, food, and construction. When we step back, we can see a truly transformative opportunity: humanity has the potential to create a sustainable world. Some climate scientists are more optimistic because they believe change is possible. Despite facing many challenges in the past, they have continued to advocate for action. They were often dismissed as alarmists, but now the world is waking up to the reality of climate change and taking action. These scientists have seen change happen and have played a significant role in driving it forward.
This is a revised excerpt from “Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet” by Hannah Ritchie, to be released by Chatto & Windus on January 11th for £22. To help the Guardian and Observer, you can purchase a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional shipping fees may apply.