ALLIGATORS basking off the English coast; a vast Brazilian desert; the mythical lost cities of Saigon, New Orleans, Venice and Mumbai; and 90 per cent of humanity vanished. Welcome to the world warmed by 4 °C.
Clearly this is a vision of the future that no one wants, but it might happen. Fearing that the best efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions may fail, or that planetary climate feedback mechanisms will accelerate warming, some scientists and economists are considering not only what this world of the future might be like, but how it could sustain a growing human population. They argue that surviving in the kinds of numbers that exist today, or even more, will be possible, but only if we use our uniquely human ingenuity to cooperate as a species to radically reorganise our world.
The good news is that the survival of humankind itself is not at stake: the species could continue if only a couple of hundred individuals remained. But maintaining the current global population of nearly 7 billion, or more, is going to require serious planning.
Four degrees may not sound like much – after all, it is less than a typical temperature change between night and day. It might sound quite pleasant, like moving to Florida from Boston, say, or retiring from the UK to southern Spain. An average warming of the entire globe by 4 °C is a very different matter, however, and would render the planet unrecognisable from anything humans have ever experienced. Indeed, human activity has and will have such a great impact that some have proposed describing the time from the 18th century onward as a new geological era, marked by human activity. “It can be considered the Anthropocene,” says Nobel prizewinning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen
of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany.
A 4 °C rise could easily occur. The 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
, whose conclusions are generally accepted as conservative, predicted a rise of anywhere between 2 °C and 6.4 °C this century. And in August 2008, Bob Watson, former chair of the IPCC, warned that the world should work on mitigation and adaptation strategies to “prepare for 4 °C of warming”.
A key factor in how well we deal with a warmer world is how much time we have to adapt. When, and if, we get this hot depends not only on how much greenhouse gas we pump into the atmosphere and how quickly, but how sensitive the world’s climate is to these gases. It also depends whether “tipping points” are reached, in which climate feedback mechanisms rapidly speed warming. According to models, we could cook the planet by 4 °C by 2100. Some scientists fear that we may get there as soon as 2050.
If this happens, the ramifications for life on Earth are so terrifying that many scientists contacted for this article preferred not to contemplate them, saying only that we should concentrate on reducing emissions to a level where such a rise is known only in nightmares.
“Climatologists tend to fall into two camps: there are the cautious ones who say we need to cut emissions and won’t even think about high global temperatures; and there are the ones who tell us to run for the hills because we’re all doomed,” says Peter Cox
, who studies the dynamics of climate systems at the University of Exeter, UK. “I prefer a middle ground. We have to accept that changes are inevitable and start to adapt now.”
Bearing in mind that a generation alive today might experience the scary side of these climate predictions, let us head bravely into this hotter world and consider whether and how we could survive it with most of our population intact. What might this future hold?
The last time the world experienced temperature rises of this magnitude was 55 million years ago, after the so-called Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum event. Then, the culprits were clathrates – large areas of frozen, chemically caged methane – which were released from the deep ocean in explosive belches that filled the atmosphere with around 5 gigatonnes of carbon. The already warm planet rocketed by 5 or 6 °C, tropical forests sprang up in ice-free polar regions, and the oceans turned so acidic from dissolved carbon dioxide that there was a vast die-off of sea life. Sea levels rose to 100 metres higher than today’s and desert stretched from southern Africa into Europe.
While the exact changes would depend on how quickly the temperature rose and how much polar ice melted, we can expect similar scenarios to unfold this time around. The first problem would be that many of the places where people live and grow food would no longer be suitable for either. Rising sea levels – from thermal expansion of the oceans, melting glaciers and storm surges – would drown today’s coastal regions in up to 2 metres of water initially, and possibly much more if the Greenland ice sheet and parts of Antarctica were to melt.
“It’s hard to see west Antarctica’s ice sheets surviving the century, meaning a sea-level rise of at least 1 or 2 metres,” says climatologist James Hansen
, who heads NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York
. “CO2 concentrations of 550 parts per million [compared with about 385 ppm now] would be disastrous,” he adds, “certainly leading to an ice-free planet, with sea level about 80 metres higher… and the trip getting there would be horrendous.”