Is it too late to prevent climate change?
News coverage of climate change is invariably gloomy and there is often a sense that, even with our best efforts, it may be too late to save the planet. To see if this is true, we asked 9 experts in climate change, ‘Is it too late to prevent climate change?’, here is what we found…
Is it too late to prevent climate change?
5 out of 8 experts answered ‘No’
Is climate change already happening?
All experts agreed that climate change is already happening. Dr Michael Wehner, an expert in climatology from Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory in the USA, says “The world is currently at 1.1C above preindustrial temperatures. This is without question. And [IPCC] reports assess the literature finding that our best estimate (a rigorous statistical term) is that human changes to composition of the atmosphere are responsible for ALL of this well observed warming.”
Rising temperatures have been carefully documented since the 1850s and the years 2015 to 2021 will be the seven warmest years on record. The impacts of this warming have also been documented – for example sea levels have risen by 4.4mm per year between 2013 and 2021. Some extreme weather events have also been on the rise. Many people are already feeling the impacts of climate change today.
Is there any point in trying to slow climate change if it has already started?
Professor Gab Abramowitz, an expert in climatology from UNSW Sydney in Australia, says “Anthropogenic climate change is already happening, so in a categorical sense, yes it is [too late to prevent climate change], but this is not a constructive question. It’s little like realising the gas stove is on and not alight, smelling the gas and then asking if it’s too late to stop gas being in the air. Just turn off the stove. The longer you leave it on the more dangerous everything becomes.”
All experts agreed that it is important and achievable to slow climate change even though it is already happening. Dr Max Callaghan, an expert in climate science from the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change in Germany, says “Climate change is already happening so we cannot prevent it from happening entirely. But the extent to which temperatures will rise is still within our control and will be a consequence of the amount of emissions we continue to produce, primarily by burning fossil fuels.”
Is it too late to prevent catastrophic climate change?
Professor Steven Sherwood, an expert in climatology and atmospheric science from UNSW Sydney in Australia, says “It is too late to prevent any climate change, but not too late to prevent catastrophic climate change.” Although there is no specific definition of ‘catastrophic climate change’, we are aware of certain thresholds which, if met, could mean temperatures spiral out of control even if we were to totally stop carbon emissions.
For example, ice sheets in the poles are covered with bright white snow which reflects much of the sun’s warming energy back into space. When some of this snow and ice melts, it exposes darker areas of ground or water, which are less able to reflect the sun’s rays and so more ice melts faster than before. Other effects contribute to this cycle, such as the newly melted water eroding the edges of the ice sheet and causing chunks of ice to fall off. A recent study suggested that, at around 2.7 degree warming this cycle might kick off to the point that ice sheets will continue melting even if temperatures stabilise.
The latest climate change reports state that global temperature increase is still within our control – if we cut our carbon emissions, temperatures will stop rising. If we go above certain temperature thresholds this might stop being the case - then it really may be too late to prevent catastrophic climate change.
Climate change is already happening, but it is not too late to stop it becoming catastrophic.
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