In 1845, Sir John Franklin set sail from Canada’s Baffin Bay with two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, on a quest to find the fabled North-West Passage. In the worst disaster in the history of British polar exploration, Franklin and his crew were never seen again after their ships became trapped in the ice.
Today, after the world’s average temperature has risen by about one degree Celsius, the sea ice has retreated so much that tourists can take a cruise through the previously impassable waters.
Talking about climate change in terms of the global average can sometimes make it sound like a minor problem. If we turned the thermostat up by 1C, we’d hardly notice until we came to pay the bill. But the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of the Earth’s lower atmosphere by the same amount is truly vast, and humanity could end up paying a heavy price.
The changes that have already been seen – the disappearance of much of the planet’s sea ice and many glaciers, increases in wildfires and more extreme weather – give an idea of how bad it could get, so it would seem reckless to allow the process to continue much further, let alone double to 2C. Once scientists suggested that this would be an acceptable limit, but in recent years research has suggested we would be wiser to prevent warming of more than 1.5C.
In a new report published yesterday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emphasised the need to hit the lower target, warning that, on its current path, the average global temperature was likely to reach that point in just 22 years and 3C by 2100. For example, at 1.5C of warming, 90 per cent of coral, one of the most important habitats in the world, will disappear, the report warned; at 2C, more 99 per cent of it will be gone, with serious knock-on effects on the species that rely on it to survive.
One scientist described the report as “frightening”, saying that allowing warming beyond 1.5C would have “very dangerous” implications for all life on Earth and the human economies that depend upon it.
But there is also hope. The price of renewable energy has been falling dramatically, electric cars are becoming more efficient, and artificial ways to extract CO2 from the atmosphere are being developed. Climate change is a serious and pressing problem, but it is nothing that human ingenuity cannot solve – if we choose to do so.