What Is the Most Realistic Scenario for Climate Change?

Some progress has been made on creating a sustainable future, but it’s clear that the U.S. (and the rest of the world) still has a long way to go.

I often read about what our best-case scenario for climate change might look like, and even more often what our worst-case scenario would look like. A worst-case scenario seems plausible, but some countries are making progress reducing emissions and new technology, like electric vehicles, will further help to reduce emissions. The best-case climate change scenario seems to get further and further out of reach with each passing year; developing countries are polluting at extremely high levels, and the U.S. has gone back on climate agreements. Our likeliest, most realistic climate change scenario is somewhere in between the best and worst-case scenarios.

If Joe Biden wins the election in November and becomes president, that’s better (but not great) news for the environment. I may be wrong, and I hope I’m wrong, but even if Joe Biden wins, he will not implement the strict policies needed to best mitigate climate change. Joe still wants to allow new permits for fracking on private and state land. He’s calling for net zero emissions by 2050, while others are aiming for 2030. He wants to spend $1.7 trillion, while progressives think we need to spend around $16 trillion, almost 10x as much. Biden will be better, but it won’t be enough.

In all of my 27 years, our country has never had back-to-back Republican or Democratic presidents. If Biden is our next president, and this trend continues, the president after Joe will be a Republican, who will likely add another four to eight years of insufficient climate policy. By the time we have another chance to elect a progressive that would take strong action on climate change, it could be 2036.

Even if emissions were halted today, much of the damage is already done. Unfortunately emissions will likely continue at their current level or increase (the drop in emissions during lockdowns from the coronavirus pandemic will not be sustained), especially with countries like China and India still in their own industrial revolution and polluting at a high level. It seems unlikely that the U.S. will make the necessary changes to combat climate change, and even more unlikely that newly industrialized countries that aren’t as wealthy as the U.S. make those changes. 

Doom and gloom climate change predictions can inspire complacency, especially when it feels like significant changes are out of reach. Instead of becoming resigned to fate, I hope an honest and hard look at what our future could realistically be like will instead inspire intolerance for the status quo and a true understanding of the urgency of climate change. We are already experiencing effects of human-caused climate change, and some changes will be irreversible, but there are many more changes that can be prevented or reversed with timely and extreme action.

How hot will it be?

Researchers worry that if global temperatures rise more than 2 degrees Celsius it could create feedback loops (like melting permafrost, releasing large quantities of methane and carbon dioxide), and lead to temperatures rising by 4 or 5 degrees C. Earth’s average temperature has already risen by 1 degree C, and is on track to rise by over 3 degrees C by 2100 (worst-case scenarios predict a rise of 5 to 7 degrees C). Temperatures will likely go up by at least 2 degrees C, which would be a large enough rise in temperature to potentially worsen feedback loops, making Earth even hotter. Extreme rising temperatures may also cause stratocumulus clouds to disappear entirely over the next 150 years, which could raise the Earth’s temperature an additional 8 degrees C.

In total, we could see the Earth’s temperatures rise as much as 12 or 13 degrees C (21.6 to 23.4 degrees Fahrenheit) over the next 150 years. Temperatures this hot would drastically increase the number of heat-related deaths, from heat exhaustion, heat stroke, cardiovascular disease, and kidney disease.

Sea levels

A rise in temperature directly causes a rise in sea level from melting glaciers and sea ice. If Earth’s temperatures rise more than 3 degrees C (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) sea levels would be about 3 feet higher by 2100. 3 feet may not sound like much, but that rise in sea level would displace or affect 680 million people who live in low-lying coastal areas. 

It could get much hotter than that, and if temperatures rose by 10 degrees C (18 degrees Fahrenheit) or more, most or all of the ice on Earth could eventually melt. If all of the ice covering Greenland, Antarctica and in mountain glaciers around the world were to melt, sea levels would rise about 70 meters, or 230 feet. In hundreds of years, much of the Earth could be underwater. Land area would shrink significantly.

Food supply

As the Earth warms, growing zones for crops will change. Areas that are already warm, like South America, Central America, the southern U.S., Africa, India, and southern China will experience greater losses in yields for corn, potatoes, rice, and wheat. Growing areas will shift north to colder climates; Europe and Canada will experience increased yields of these crops.

Areas most dependent on locally grown crops will suffer the most. 821 million people worldwide are already undernourished, and climate change will only exacerbate this problem.

Extreme weather

It’s difficult to attribute specific extreme weather events to climate change, but one analysis found that 69% of extreme weather events and trends analyzed were found to be made more likely or more severe by human-caused climate change. Heatwaves, droughts, heavy rainfall, and floods are all more likely now due to climate change, and will become even likelier as temperatures rise more. As temperatures continue to rise, severe drought could affect 40% of all land on Earth.

Warmer sea temperatures will cause more intense and severe hurricanes, which will in turn cause more property damage, loss of life, and flooding.

Plants and animals

Humans won’t be the only living beings affected by climate change, of course. One-third of all plant and animal species could be extinct by 2070 due to climate change. Rising temperatures will be the greatest cause of extinction, and unfortunately most species won’t be able to migrate to cooler habitats quickly enough to avoid extinction.

Climate change will likely devastate our planet, and is already causing a great deal of damage. The hotter temperatures will cause sea levels to rise, which could displace hundreds of millions of people. Extreme weather events will become more common and dangerous. Many of our plant and animal species will go extinct, and more people will suffer from hunger, thirst, and starvation.

It is difficult to implement policies today for the sake of future generations, but I think placing the interests of the future planet above our own is the next level of human evolution. Throughout human history, our species has lived for the moment. We burn coal, oil, and gas like there’s no tomorrow. Decisions are made based on what is best for the moment, not what will be best for people 50 or 100 years from now. 

For the first time in modern history, we could honestly tell our children and grandchildren that we left the Earth better than we found it. Future generations will already be asking why we didn’t do more. It doesn’t make sense; when renewable energy, like wind and solar, were so cheap, why did we continue burning natural gas and coal? Because we already had those factories built? Because it was a little bit cheaper? Because lobbyists donated millions of dollars to those in power to incentivize them to maintain the status quo? Because we were too afraid of change to stand up and do something?

Climate change warnings often feel like “Iceberg, right ahead!” moments (too little, too late), but there is still time to save our ship, so don’t go jumping off the deck just yet. The protests over the last several weeks have shown the power of numbers. We can rise up and demand change. Average, ordinary people control our world and our economy and have the power to do anything. We must choose to leave a better, cleaner planet for the sake of future generations. A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.

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