The climate singularity: What happens after 2 degrees Celsius?

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In 1993, computer scientist Vernor Vinge wrote that we would reach a technological singularity — a point at which artificial intelligence and technology become so advanced that their existence and the effects of their existence will become irreversible.

But there is another singularity posing an existential threat to the human era: climate change.

The 2016 Paris Agreement set up a goal to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius or below 2 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial temperatures – a valiant challenge for humankind. 

According to a special report summary by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,  “Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate.”

A study published in the European Geosciences Union’s Earth Systems Dynamics journal paints a darker picture. The study describes what scientists call the “Point of No Return,” the year after which no possible policy measure could succeed in meeting the Paris Agreement’s global warming limit of 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.  According to the study, if we fail to remove any greenhouse gasses from our atmosphere, the global climate will reach the Point of No Return for the 2 degrees Celcius mark in 2045.

The question remains: What will happen when we reach the 2 degrees Celsius threshold? 

If you live in the western region of the United States, you’ve probably noticed the increasing rate and intensity of wildfires. That is not a coincidence, as the world is already 1 degree Celsius warmer than it was at pre-industrial levels. We are breaking all kinds of records: July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere.

Like a technological singularity, it’s pretty hard to imagine what the world will look like if we cross the warming threshold and face irreversible climate collapse.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information, the United States has faced 125 severe storms, 17 wildfires, 45 tropical cyclones, 33 floods, 27 droughts, 17 winter storms and nine freezes between 1980 and 2020. These were all billion-dollar disasters. 

Additionally, some ecology experts say we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction. Humans have caused hundreds of species to become extinct or endangered through wildlife trade, pollution and habitat destruction. Pair that with melting glaciers and sea ice which, according to the World Wildlife Fund, “add to rising sea levels, which in turn increases coastal erosion and elevates storm surge as warming air and ocean temperatures create more frequent and intense coastal storms like hurricanes and typhoons.”

According to NASA, once we reach 2 degrees Celsius, “more than 70 percent of Earth’s coastlines will see sea-level rise greater than 0.66 feet (0.2 meters), resulting in increased coastal flooding, beach erosion, salinization of water supplies and other impacts on humans and ecological systems.”

The risks associated with the 2-degree threshold are even warmer temperatures, more droughts, less available freshwater and extreme precipitation. We’ll also lose biodiversity. At 2 degrees Celsius warming, we will lose 18% of our insects, 16% of our plants and 8% of our vertebrates.

David Macdonald, a professor of zoology at Oxford University, said “without biodiversity, there is no future for humanity.” Human health is dependent on ecosystem services such as fresh water, food and energy.

Like a technological singularity, it’s pretty hard to imagine what the world will look like if we cross the warming threshold and face irreversible climate collapse. Different regions of the world would face varied impacts, and those living in poverty would be disproportionately impacted.

It is not just about the climate; it is about environmental justice, developed and developing nations, displacement and biodiversity conservation.

This is a uniquely singular problem for humankind because it encapsulates so many issues all at once. It is not just about the climate; it is about environmental justice, developed and developing nations, displacement and biodiversity conservation. It is about human rights, food, water and a chance to reconnect with the only planet we know of in the entire universe that supports life.  

The fight against climate change requires a global effort like we have never seen before.

But can still turn ourselves around. California Gov. Gavin Newsom and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have moved to end the sale of gas-powered vehicles by 2035 to incentivize the production of electric vehicles. It’s a decent start. 

In 2019, the European Union moved to ban single-use plastics and adopted legislation on a clean energy package that includes standards for government regulation, energy efficiency and renewable energy. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, Belgium is taking one set further and is on its way to a full-blown circular economy in which products and materials are recycled and reused for as long as possible.

While change comes from the top down, we can make an impact from the bottom up as well. People power works. We have power in our vote, power in how we spend our money and power in our presence on social media. Keep climate change a trending topic. Shop sustainably. Listen to environmental podcasts, maybe watch “Our Planet” on Netflix and then volunteer for a conservation organization such as the Center for Biological Diversity, an organization that relies on law, sciences and creative media to protect the Endangered Species Act and ensure a prosperous future for all life on Earth. Getting involved with it or a similar organization is as easy as signing a petition, attending a virtual rally or learning about the species it fights to protect. 

There is so much within our power. Let’s take advantage of it. 

Contact Rochelle Gluzman at [email protected].