If you have been alive for the last seven years, you have lived through the hottest recorded period on planet earth. In Europe, temperature records have been broken year after year as heat waves have become an annual occurrence. Much of the continent this summer was gripped by the most severe drought on record as major streams and rivers in France and Italy completely dried up.
We are living in a time of frightening extremes. But it’s also a time of increasing scientific awareness. Climate researchers have long understood that a warmer planet is a less habitable planet. But, until recently, they could say with little precision how rising temperatures contribute to individual storms or the disappearance of species. Today, sophisticated statistical models allow them to assert with confidence how climate change is fueling a host of ecological disasters. For example, the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that a rise in average global temperatures from 1.5 to 3 degrees Celsius would nearly double extinction rates among terrestrial organisms and quadruple the risk of severe flooding.
As the next United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP27, approaches in November, we stand at the brink. The data is clear—no region or nation is immune from the ravages of climate change. The question is whether we can act quickly enough to head off planetary disaster.
The Many Global Impacts
It begins at the top, in the planet’s high elevations and latitudes where snow and ice are disappearing at an alarming rate. Glaciers in the Alps have lost almost half of their ice volume since 1900, according to the European Environment Agency, and are predicted to shrink by another two-thirds by the end of the century. A larger concern is the rapid melting of ice in earth’s polar regions, which are warming twice as quickly as the rest of the planet. According to data from NASA, Arctic sea ice has declined by 13% per decade since the late 1970s, and the Antarctic ice sheets are losing an average of 150 billion tons of ice mass annually. (For comparison, a single gigaton of ice would cover an area the size of Central Park in a layer more than 1,100 feet thick.)
As the ice sheets melt, sea levels rise. And this, in turn, is leading to inundation and erosion of the planet’s coastal regions. Nowhere is the phenomenon more apparent than in Tuvalu, an archipelago in the South Pacific where the ocean is rising at around 5 millimeters per year (nearly twice the global average). At current rates, say experts, the islands, home to almost 12,000 residents, could become uninhabitable by 2100. Last November, the situation prompted Tuvalu’s Minister for Justice, Communication & Foreign Affairs, Simon Kofe, to give a televised speech at the COP26 United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, from a podium half-submerged in water. “Climate change and sea level rise are deadly and an existential threat to Tuvalu and low-lying atoll countries,” Kofe said. “We are sinking, but so is everyone else.”
The rising temperatures are also fueling more frequent extreme weather events. Nine of the 10 costliest hurricanes that have struck the United States all have occurred since the turn of the 21st century. The megadrought that has gripped the U.S. southwest for more than two decades has seen the west’s two largest reservoirs—Lake Mead and Lake Powell—reduced to vast, cracked mudflats. The Colorado River, which feeds these reservoirs is rapidly fading—and that diminution holds dire consequences for 40 million people across the American West who depend on the river for their water supply.
While the consequences of a warming planet are being felt by people across the globe, the worst impacts are falling most heavily upon the poor. According to a report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, more than half a billion of the world’s most undernourished people also live in underdeveloped countries that are extremely vulnerable to climate shocks. By 2030, climate change could drive more than 100 million additional people into extreme poverty, based on a study from the World Bank.
Humans are hardly the only living things harmed on a planet whose climate systems have gone haywire. One study published last April in the journal Science by researchers from Princeton University found that a “business as usual” approach could result in a global collapse of marine ecosystems by the end of the century—a scenario “not seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs,” according to a press release. The Center for Biological Diversity projects that more than one-third of the planet’s species could be wiped out by 2050 if we do nothing to slow global warming.
A Fossil-Fuelled Problem
How, exactly, did we get here? In a word: carbon.
Long before humans began altering the composition of the atmosphere, the planet began warming as it emerged from the last Ice Age, roughly 11,000 years ago. But we have ratcheted up the natural rate of warming through the unchecked burning of coal, oil, and gas.
At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, people began burning these fossil fuels in mass quantities to power factories, heat homes, and fuel transportation. That burning, in turn, has added enormous volumes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. As populations and industrialized economies have grown in the last two-and-a-half centuries, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions have risen exponentially.
World leaders are awakening slowly to the mounting threat of runaway carbon emissions. But the response so far has been incommensurate to the scale of the problem. Since the first major gathering on climate was convened in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1979, the concentration of atmospheric carbon has risen by almost 25%. The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997 and signed by more than 150 countries, was a landmark treaty, one that required developed nations to reduce emissions by about 5% below 1990 levels. It also provided a framework to monitor those reductions. One major shortcoming of the Kyoto Protocol, however, is that it did not require developing countries—including China and India, two of the largest carbon emitters—to participate.
The Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 is the most ambitious global climate agreement to date. It requires all signatories (including China and India) to set national targets aimed at keeping the global average temperature from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The Paris Agreement also sets forth a pathway for global carbon neutrality by the second half of the century.
The prescriptions of Kyoto and Paris have spurred political action. Last year, the European Union passed a law requiring member nations to collectively cut emissions by 55% from 1990 levels by the year 2030. Last spring, the Biden Administration announced its goal of cutting U.S. emissions in half by the end of the decade.
A Push For Action
But those efforts have often been stymied by political leaders and parties with deep ties to the fossil fuel industry. In 2017, for example, the Trump Administration announced it was pulling out of the Paris accord, citing an unfair burden on U.S. manufacturing firms; that withdrawal officially went into effect in 2020. On his first day in office, President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. would reenter the agreement. And in August, the Democrats finally pushed through landmark climate legislation under the Inflation Reduction Act which experts say will go a long way to helping the U.S. achieve Biden’s 2030 emissions goal.
Meanwhile, leaders of African countries seem to be on the verge of pushing for more investment in fossil fuels across their continent, which has large reserves of oil waiting to be tapped, and they might find eager customers among developed countries, according to The Guardian. Tapping into these vast reserves would be disastrous in terms of meeting global climate targets.
As political tides shift in various directions, renewable, carbon-free energy sources such as wind and solar have steadily increased, accounting for more than a quarter of the total global energy mix, according to the International Energy Agency. In the U.S., renewables make up 20% of “utility scale generation.” But of that total, about one-third comes from hydropower, which, though carbon neutral, is ecologically problematic since it entails damming and diverting rivers.
In addition to renewables, some have promoted economic measures such as cap-and-trade or the carbon offset systems in lieu of reducing their own emissions. Critics say these approaches are vulnerable to shoddy accounting, or even outright fraud. Some promote a more straightforward (and transparent) carbon tax, in which polluters are required to pay a set fee based on the amount of carbon they emit.
Meanwhile, others are pushing technical fixes such as direct air capture and storage, a process in which carbon is siphoned from the atmosphere and pumped into rock formations deep underground. Last fall, the world’s largest carbon dioxide removal plant came online in Iceland. Known as Orca, the facility, which cost an estimated $10 million to $15 million, is powered by a nearby geothermal plant and is capable of capturing 4,000 metric tons of carbon annually—the same amount belched out in a year by roughly 800 cars—a tiny a fraction of the more than 30 billion metric tons of carbon emitted globally in 2020.
A more drastic “geoengineering” scheme proposes to seed the ocean with fertilizers in order to stimulate growth of photosynthetic plankton. These tiny organisms, in theory, could absorb large quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Proponents also say the technique could help reduce the deleterious effects of ocean acidification—also driven by increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon—which has damaged coral reefs and marine ecosystems across the globe.
While the tools available are many, the effort must be rapid, coordinated, and global if we hope to slow the catastrophic warming of the planet. The climate crisis is this generation’s defining battle—and it is a battle that must be won.
This article is part of a series on key topics in the climate crisis for time.com and CO2.com, a division of TIME that helps companies reduce their impact on the planet. For more information, go to co2.com
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