The climate crisis is one of the most concerning existential threats of our times. But with an overwhelming amount of information out there, it can be hard to keep up.
This autumn will mark a year since the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which outlined the extent and impact of global warming. The report sparked a series of alarming global news headlines, including The Guardian’s: “We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe”.
But how accurate are these apocalyptic predictions? Experts have criticised the “cycle of hype” surrounding the current reporting on climate change. Many of the so-called “hard facts” presented by the media and environmental campaigners are shared as gospel, without recognising the specific nuance and detail of the situation.
There is, however, widespread agreement over one key point: global warming needs to be halted at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels in order to prevent disastrous consequences. While this level of warming is by no means “safe”, it is significantly better than an average temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius or higher.
The 2015 Paris Agreement saw 195 countries committing to individual targets to cut greenhouse emissions by 2030, in a bid to limit warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, and to “pursue efforts” to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, President Trump pulled the US–the world’s second largest emitter–out of the agreement in 2017, making it extremely difficult to achieve the goals set out in the agreement. Even if all countries were to meet their aims, this would still lead to a 3.2°C rise by 2100, according to a 2017 report by the UN–showing that the current targets are far from sufficient.
Vogue speaks to Dr Debra Roberts, a co-author of the 2018 IPCC report, Dr Nicola Beaumont, a scientist at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, and Katharine Reich, associate director of the UCLA Center for Climate Science, to find out the facts behind four of the most concerning headlines.
1. “Planet has only until 2030 to stem catastrophic climate change”
What was reported: A CNN article, published in October 2018, reported that “Governments around the world must take ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’ to avoid disastrous levels of global warming”.
The science: The 2018 IPCC report found emissions have to decline by 45 percent by 2030 (in comparison to 2010 levels) to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Even if this goal is reached, some of the impact caused by global warming may be “long-lasting or irreversible”, such as the loss of ecosystems and the Greenland ice sheet.
However, according to Roberts we should not consider 2030 as a tipping point. “This idea that everything falls apart [by 2030] is simply wrong,” she tells Vogue. “It’s just an indicator of the kind of action that needs to happen to keep global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius.”
Current state of play: Recent figures suggest most countries signed up to the Paris Agreement are not on track to meet their individual goals by 2030.
2. “Major climate report describes a strong risk of crisis as early as 2040”
What was reported: A New York Times article, also published in October 2018, said the IPCC report “describes a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040—a period well within the lifetime of much of the global population”.
The science: Average temperatures will rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2040 if the current rate of warming continues, according to the IPCC report, leading to an “increase in frequency of extreme events”, Roberts explains. That includes flooding, heatwaves, droughts and wildfires.
However, she emphasises that 2040 is not an “end-game” date, explaining that some countries–particularly small islands–will be impacted more heavily by this projected temperature rise.
Current state of play: Following last year’s IPCC report, there have been calls for governments around the world to take more urgent action. The WWF has urged the EU–the world’s third largest emitter–to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2040, rather than the current goal of 2050.
3. “A new warning says we could run out of fish by 2048”
What was reported: A Huffington Post article, published in December 2017, stated that “If the world keeps fishing at its current pace, there will be no more fish left to eat by 2048,” based on a warning from the WWF.
The science: A 2006 study on marine diversity found the world’s fish supplies will run out by 2048, if overfishing continues at the same rate. Though it has since initiated a series of frightening claims–including that our oceans will be dead in 30 years–the projection was only relevant to the fish we eat. “We only looked at large scale fisheries,” explains Beaumont, one of the study’s co-authors.
Despite significant environmental changes since the study was first published, the 2048 projection has not been reassessed—either for better or for worse. “Since then, [there’s been] stricter management of our fisheries,” Beaumont comments. However, there has also been an increase in ocean temperatures, ocean acidification and plastic in our seas–additional factors that all have an impact, too.
Current state of play: The UN has set key targets to preserve our oceans, as part of their sustainable development goals. These include conserving at least 10 percent of coastal and marine areas by 2020 and significantly reducing marine pollution by 2025. Beaumont says individuals also have a part to play, by avoiding single-use plastic and ensuring your seafood consumption is sustainable.
4. “High likelihood of human civilisation coming to end by 2050”
What was reported: An article from The Independent, published in June 2019, said “Human civilisation as we know it may have already entered its last decades,” according to a “worrying new report”.
The science: The report, published in May by Australian think-tank Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, put forward a worst-case scenario for 2050 where there would be a “high likelihood of human civilisation coming to an end”.
However, the report’s authors did not state how likely such a scenario would be. “It’s important to understand that this report is not a scientific product,” says Reich. “What the authors are offering is a scenario of the future that makes certain assumptions about what might happen–it’s not a prediction about what will happen,” she continues.
While the figures in the report are more extreme than most other projections, there is research to suggest we may reach this scenario over the course of the next century. For example, the 2050 scenario is based on a global warming rise of 3 degrees Celcius; the IPCC says we are on course to reach this by 2100 if urgent action isn’t taken now. The report also describes a world where a billion people are displaced by climate change; current estimates put the figure somewhere between 25 million and a billion.
Current state of play: The UN is calling for countries to commit to a target of net zero emissions by 2050. Net zero emissions would have to be reached by 2070 to keep warming to 2 degrees Celsius, according to the IPCC.