Enrique Castro-Mendivil / Reuters

World’s future climate will depend on people in 2015, not governments

Series of increasingly dire warnings about effects of global warming met with inaction by world leaders

As the world looks ahead to the signing of a global climate treaty in Paris next year — a year predicted to be the hottest on record after 2014 — a lack of significant pledges to cut carbon emissions by world leaders signals a lack of political will that could be catastrophic for the entire globe.

Though the entire world will face the consequences of inaction, it is likely the poorest  will be affected first. Low-lying states like the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific may be drowned by rising seas if climate change is not curbed. Nearby Kiribati is already preparing for a full-scale evacuation of its residents due to climate change. Researchers warned that a hotter world would have a severe impact on agriculture, with global implications for food prices.

Scientists warned last month that saving the world as we know it would require leaving up to 85 percent of currently recoverable fossil fuel reserves in the ground. If not, the global average temperature could increase more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius)  over pre-Industrial era temperatures — leading to abrupt climate disruption.

The release of a series of increasingly dire scientific reports in 2014 cataloging effects of climate change already in motion such as increasingly severe storms has moved the global conversation forward.

Gone are the days of trying to convince the world that "something is happening" — too many people, in too many places have noticed the strange weather and increasingly intense storms. Hundreds of thousands marched around the globe in September ahead of a United Nations Climate Summit in New York City calling for action from climate negotiators.

But it seems public concern over climate change is outpacing that of world leaders if the outcome of this month's 20th Conference of the Parties in Lima, Peru (COP20) is any indication. Though the United States and China announced major emissions reduction targets for 2030 — after scientists said the world can burn fossil fuels at current rates only until 2033 if it wants to avoid catastrophic consequences — the negotiations largely stalled over questions of responsibility for global warming.

Temperatures are set to rise as much as a 8.3 F as well temperature rise by the end of the century, scientists have warned, which would lead to mass plant and animal extinctions and cause seas to rise about 7 feet.

The world has already seen a 1.53 F rise since nations began burning fossil fuels in earnest about a century ago — or about the same temperature change seen over 5,000 years at the end of the last ice age. That means the warming experienced this century is the fastest ever seen, and because of the delayed heating effect of carbon emissions, a certain amount of additional heating is already promised.

Unstoppable melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet, predictions of an ice-free Arctic by summer 2015, reports that the rate of extinctions is rivaling that seen during of the demise of dinosaurs, stronger and more frequent extreme weather and storms, acidification of the world’s oceans, and coral reef die-offs are just some of the science-based warnings about climate change released this year. 

Scientists have warned that these crises and others risk pushing the globe over a climate red line. Already being seen are positive feedback cycles, which feed into each other exacerbating heating. One example is melting in the Arctic. When ice melts due to warmer temperatures, the surface is no longer white and therefore traps more heat because while light colors reflect heat and dark colors absorb it — leading to increased rates of melting. 

As research from universities worlwide to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that the effects of climate change may be more severe than predicted and as diplomatic efforts to curb emissions stall, civil society, or non-government actors, and the private sector are already getting in line with the new climate reality. Hundreds of architects from around the world signed a letter revealing that energy inefficiency in buildings is a leading contributor to climate change; they vowed to design new structures with that in mind.

Meanwhile, investors have divested trillions of dollars from fossil fuels and investment in renewable energy technology is predicted to explode, President Barack Obama announced earlier this year after solar panels were installed on the White House. His prediction was based on the fact that the cost of green technology is becoming increasingly competitive compared to fossil fuels. Every four minutes, Obama said, a home or business is going solar.

As action outside of international climate conferences outpaces that of world leaders, it is becoming increasingly clear that in 2015 saving the world will depend on the people.

Consuming petroleum products results in greenhouse gas emissions, and removing the resources from the ground can have devastating ecosystem effects:

Fossil fuel extraction drives carbon emissions and exacts a toll on the nearby environment.
Neda Djavaherian

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