Climate emergency

“This is an emergency. This is an existential crisis. And we must do everything we can to stop it”

Greta Thunberg (BBC, 2019)

Nature is crucial for survival. Humanity is witnessing, however, nature’s protracted destruction and so the impetus for a different world has begun. Everywhere,  communities are uniting to fight against climate change and protect our planet. Children are playing an essential role in this fight for life and a healthy environment. Humanium fully supports the right for present and future generations of children to live in a safe, beautiful and healthy world, and we are working towards this vision.

Summary for Children

People around the world have joined forces to give a voice to the global fight against climate change. The combination of a global alarm bell sounding for the environmental state of our planet, along with the increase of extreme climate events is known as a ‘climate emergency’. This emergency is the reflection of climate change and its vast and devastating consequences, including rising sea levels, surging global temperatures, increased wildfires and droughts, as well as mass forced human displacement. There is not any one reason or actor responsible for this worldwide environmental disaster. Rather, contemporary ways of life combined with an industrialized world that consumes fossil fuels without restriction has led us to this. Although we should all be trying to improve our habits and make changes in our lives, it is first and foremost large companies and giant corporations that must imperatively and dramatically change the ways in which they produce and sell products, and policy-makers who must oblige them to do so for the good of the environment. There are many solutions, to the current emergency and very many people are working each day to make this change for the planet, and its inhabitants, possible. But as Greta Thunberg and many others highlight – this is an emergency – it is urgent and imperative that the necessary changes happen now and not later.

What is the Climate Emergency?

Over the past decade, many civil movements have emerged calling for changes in human behaviour towards the environment. The planet is suffering from an extreme degradation and destruction of its environments and ecosystems that could affect humans, and everything alive on earth, forever. In response, people across the globe are willing to change their lives and take action to instigate political change in the face of this worldwide emergency. 

Just as humans feel that too many environmental disasters are happening – rising sea levels, increased wildfires, cyclones, and extreme climate phenomenon – scientists across the world have established that humans are a principal actor of said environmental disruption, and that in light of this fact, it is possible to counteract the emergency.

Indeed, 97% of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate change is happening and that human activities are the cause of this (NASA, 2020). The concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere is directly linked with the Earth’s temperature, and an increasing greenhouse gas concentration has been detected since the Industrial Revolution and the burning of fossil fuels.

What are the Primary Impacts of the Climate Emergency?

Rising Temperatures and Sea Levels

  • The temperature of the Earth has changed, and will continue to do so, according to most studies. Already in 2019, the average global temperature was 1.1°C higher than previous years. Rising global temperatures lead to extreme weather events such as heatwaves, droughts, flooding, winter storms, hurricanes, and wildfires (UN Environment Programme, 2020).

In 2019, a global heat wave caused unprecedented quantities of ice to melt and record rising sea levels alongside massive greenhouse gas production (World Meteorological Organization, 2019).

Scientists agree that a temperature increase of up to 1.5°C would be very serious but still have a lesser impact than a rise in temperature beyond this point (Environmental Programme, 2020). Beyond 1.5°C, we are warned of even worse consequences which would threaten global livelihoods, economies and the lives of millions. Examples of such extreme consequences include that above 1.5° C more than 70% of coral reefs would die, and above 2°C around 99% could be lost. Insects, essential for pollination of crops and plants, would lose half of their habitat should the globe warm to 1.5°C, with this being worsened at 2°C of warming. Some consider an eventual rise of 2°C highly probable  (Environmental Programme, 2020).

Above 1.5°C the frequency and intensity of droughts would increase, as well as storms and extreme weather events which are already devastating in many countries, and on the rise.

  • Sea levels will rise a further 1 to 4 feet by 2100. Records began in 1880 and demonstrate that as of 2020, global sea levels have risen by about 8 inches since then (Nasa, 2020).
  • Increased flooding and land subsidence(1) are also to be expected because of the combination of storm surges and high tides which accompany rising sea levels.

One cause of rising sea levels is the impact of climate change in the polar regions. The two poles are essential for the natural regulation of the planet’s climate, partially because they serve to reflect much of the sun’s energy. In the Arctic, average air temperatures have increased by 5° C over the past 100 years. Equally, Antarctica plays a key climate regulatory role and contains 90% of the freshwater on the earth’s surface (WWF, 2020).

All these factors contribute to the fact that every year, the sea rises 0.13 inches (3.2mm); there are 3 major causes of rising sea levels. Firstly, the expansion of water as it heats up which is known as ‘thermal expansion’. Indeed, around half of the rise in sea level is attributable to warmer oceans which occupy more space. Secondly, the melting of glaciers has demonstrated persistent higher temperatures which in turn deregulate the balance of glaciers’ natural melting process and the formation of new ice. Increased melting of ice in summer leads to later winters and earlier springs, creating an imbalance between runoff(2) and ocean evaporation, causing sea levels to rise. Thirdly, the loss of Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets plays an important role in the planet’s rising sea levels (National Geographic, 2020).

  • Extreme climate events, wildfires and droughts: The climate emergency has considerably increased droughts worldwide. Indeed, warmer temperatures can speed up soil evaporation leading to drier precipitation periods. Atmospheric rivers(3) can also be affected by the disruption of precipitation patterns. Floods, for example, have been causing unprecedented death and destruction in many countries. These droughts threaten agriculture, transportation, wildfires, energy and innumerous livelihoods.

Drought is caused by increased evaporation from soil and vegetation, which in turn is associated with the earth’s warming. The proliferation of dry areas across the globe has doubled since 1970. (Climate Communication, 2011).

Alongside this, wildfires have increased. There are longer wildfire seasons, because spring runoffs arrive earlier, heat builds faster, and warm conditions are prolonged; these drier conditions increase the probability of fires occurring (some fires are also started deliberately to clear forest). Precipitation decreases as temperatures get higher. Warmer conditions create conditions for widespread insect infestations, causing broader ranges of dead and more combustible trees. In addition, there is an increased frequency of lightning and thunderstorms.The climate emergency also causes mass forced human displacement, meaning people’s homes and towns are made uninhabitable, and they are forced to leave. Already, twice as many people are displaced worldwide by climate change than by violence and conflict, with 7 million people internally displaced by extreme weather events in the first half of 2019 alone (this does not include cross-border displacement). Such people are becoming increasingly, albeit unofficially, recognised as Climate Refugees (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 2019).

Pollution

Air, water, land, light and noise pollution are major factors of the climate emergency. Burning fossil fuels pollutes the air we breathe as well as accelerating the climate emergency, and air pollution has been called the “new tobacco” by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Indeed, 9 out of 10 people breathe air containing pollutants (WHO, 2020), and around 4.5 million people die every year because of air pollution, with low and middle income countries most affected, something Greenpeace has labelled a “public health emergency” caused principally by coal, oil and car companies which in turn make handsome profits (Greenpeace, 2020). 

Pollution of the ocean and the world’s waters is also a huge problem which contributes to the destruction of ecosystems and the endangerment of the health of many species. Indeed, 80% of this pollution comes from just 20 countries. Due to the equivalent of almost 57,000 Blue Whales worth of plastic being dumped in the ocean each year, huge ocean garbage patches have formed, one of which is twice the size of Texas and contains about 1.8 trillion pieces of rubbish (Conservation International, 2020).

Loss of Biodiversity, Deforestation and Desertification

“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide” Sir Robert Watson, Chair of Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (UN, 2019). 

Desertification and deforestation are devastating results of climate change which destroy the livelihoods and habitats of countless people and other species around the world. Due to drought and desertification, arable land the size of the Philippines is lost each year – with the same quantity of rainforest lost in 2018 alone(4). According to the UN, around 1.6 billion people are dependent upon forests including 70 million indigenous people, and forests house over 80% of all land species of animals, plants and insects. Furthermore, 2.6 billion people depend directly upon agriculture, but as of 2019 over half the land traditionally used for agriculture is affected by soil degradation (contributing to desertification) which reduces people’s ability to grow crops and rear animals. It is the poorest people in the world, those most severely impacted by structural inequalities, who are the most seriously affected by desertification and deforestation with women and girls being disproportionately hit (UN SGD, 2019).

The 2019 UN ‘2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service’ report described the accelerating rate of species extinction and the unprecedented destruction of nature that the climate emergency has brought about. Up to a million species face extinction; many in the coming decades. Over 40% of amphibians, almost 33% of reef-forming corals, 10% of insects and more than 30% of all marine mammals are threatened by extinction. Tropical regions are home to the highest levels of biodiversity on the planet and have been most heavily impacted by the loss of ecosystems. For example tropical forests that could cover the surface area of Egypt were lost from 1980 to 2000(5), resulting mainly from deforestation due to cattle ranching in Latin America and from plantations in South-East Asia (of which 80% are for palm oil). Equally, dramatic death of coastal habitats significantly increases the risk of hurricanes and floods (UN SDG, 2019).

How are Children Affected?

The Climate Emergency threatens children’s most fundamental rights at (as enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child), severely impacting their rights to health, food, water, education and protection. Extreme weather events across the globe are putting more and more children’s lives at risk. Children are disproportionately affected by the climate emergency in the present, and many of their futures will be dictated by the course of climate degradation in years to come. Indeed, many children have been pushed to take up the immensely difficult and dangerous struggle for environmental justice. In 2019, UNICEF declared the climate emergency a child rights crisis (UNICEF, 2019) and reported the following:

  • Every year, environmental factors kill 1.7 million children under the age of five.
  • One in every four children will be living in areas with extremely limited water resources by 2040.
  • Over half a billion children live in areas at significantly high risk of flooding due to extreme weather events.
  • About 160 million children live in areas which suffer from high levels of drought.
  • Almost 90% of the burden of disease attributable to climate change is borne by children under the age of five. 
  • About 300 million children are breathing toxic air – 17 million of which have not yet reached their first birthday (UNICEF, 2019).

Who is Implicated in the Climate Emergency?

It is increasingly apparent that citizens and communities exact pressure on governments and companies to act for the good of the environment. They have thus emerged as key actors amidst the Climate Emergency and include worldwide movements in their thousands and innumerous individuals. Such actors demand meaningful adherence to scientific findings and warnings,  as well as the adoption of more radical attitudes, behaviours and policies towards the Climate Emergency.

Secondly, national governments around the world are taking some action, but are often patronising towards, and biased against, civil society movements. It is nonetheless true that progress, albeit insufficient, has been made. In the 1980s, solutions were adopted in the hope to avoid another serious environmental problem, whilst ozone depletion was causing global concern. This was achieved with the Montreal Protocol signed in 1987 and ratified by every country in the world, indicating an important shift in international perception (Tampere University, 2019). International and national environmental law has the potential to afford people everywhere environmental rights. 

Environmental issues today are more vast and dramatic than in the 1980s, though, and do not involve any one particular environmental factor but a complex amalgamation of problems. The solution, therefore, is now more complicated and does not involve tackling any one issue, but an entire global system.

Pekka Jokinen, Professor of environmental policy at Tampere University, said “The current climate policy has not been as successful. There are no easy technological solutions, and today’s political leadership on this issue is not the same as the leadership in the 1980s” (Tampere University, 2019).Lastly, businesses and companies are crucial actors on the global stage upon which the Climate Emergency is playing out. Studies show that nearly two-thirds (around 63%) of all industrial carbon dioxide and methane released to the atmosphere can be traced to fossil fuel and cement production by just 90 companies. These include privately owned companies such as Chevron and Exxon, as well as state-run companies such as Gazprom and Saudi Aramco. The top 20 companies produced 48% of all industrial carbon pollution. The study states that: “Most analyses to date, including the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) structure, consider responsibility in terms of nation-states […] However, responsibilities can also be understood in other ways as well, as done in the present analysis tracing emissions to major carbon producers [..]” (Heede, 2013). The responsibility of such companies is paramount in addressing the climate emergency, and holding them strictly accountable for their actions or inactions, alongside better regulation, is a challenge of paramount importance for the decade to come.

What should be done?

Decisive actions and policy change need to be taken in order to effectively combat climate change. This must happen now.

Greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced by 7.6% every year from now to 2030. Every year we fail to act, the greater the difficulty in winding back the damage becomes, and the cost of reducing emissions goes up. The Paris Agreement has shown to be insufficient regarding its 2015 targets to limit global temperature rise to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The targets will be reconsidered in 2021 in the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). At COP26, if states do not agree to – and meet – more effective targets, the world would be certain to face a rise in temperatures above 1.5°C. The issue is that countries are not on track to fulfil the promises they have already made. The planet desperately needs a rapid shift to zero net carbon emissions, a growth in the amount of energy sourced from renewables and the rapid deceleration  of fossil fuel dependency (UN environment programme, 2020).

Written by Adrian Lakrichi and Josie Thum
Last updated on June 24, 2020

Glossary:

  1. Land subsidence is a gradual settling or sudden sinking of the Earth’s surface
  2. Runoff: “That part of the precipitation, snow melt, or irrigation water that appears in uncontrolled (not regulated by a dam upstream) surface streams, rivers, drains or sewers” (USGS, 2020)
  3. Atmospheric rivers are narrow streams of moisture transported in the atmosphere
  4. 12 million hectares
  5. 100 millions hectares

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