Given the importance that scientists have placed on restricting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius – the slogan of Glasgow’s COP26 summit was “keep 1.5 alive” – news that the world is likely to reach that level within four years will be alarming for many.
There is some comfort in that this is partly because of the cyclical El Niño weather phenomenon. So, even if the landmark figure is recorded, it should only be temporary and, when La Niña returns, the planet will then cool down, to an extent.
However, as the amount of greenhouse gases we are pumping into the atmosphere is still rising, planet Earth is going to keep getting hotter. And it will continue to do so until we reduce those climate-altering emissions all the way to “net zero”.
Therefore, even if the world manages to achieve this goal by 2050, that’s still another 27 years of warming and, as there is a lag between the release of greenhouse gases and the resultant increase in temperature, the mercury will continue to rise for some years after that.
That fact may fill people in parts of India with some dread, given temperatures in cities like Kolkata can already reach the 40s which, when coupled with high humidity, make simply being outside a potentially serious health hazard, particularly for those who make a living doing manual work. Those struggling with droughts in East Africa and France, wildfires in Australia and California, floods in Italy and Pakistan, and the myriad of other existing effects of our rapidly changing climate may also be moved to ponder the future with some trepidation.
Over the next few years, it appears El Niño – “the boy” – is going to give humanity a taste of what a warmer world will be like, perhaps providing a lesson for those who still need one. But it also brings a different kind of warning. The big fear of climate scientists is that our reckless “climate forcing” will trigger other natural processes, which could lead to ‘runaway’ global warming that we may discover, to our horror, we are powerless to prevent.