Why is climate change happening, what will happen, and what can you do?

October 2023

As I explained in this article, humanity is entering a period of turmoil because of climate change and there is very little that can be done to stop what is happening. Individuals and societies can only try to manage the change as best they can. Environmental, social and economic turbulence will increase and come in ever-bigger waves over many decades. As well as more frequent floods, droughts and wildfires, food insecurity, water scarcity, poverty and inequality will all grow, as will migration. The risk of conflict will rise.

Why is this happening, what will happen, and what can you do?

Why is this happening?

1- This turmoil is happening because a small minority of people have behaved in a hugely destructive way for many years. By releasing ever greater-quantities of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide, they have knocked the atmosphere of the planet out of balance. Nearly 75% of these emissions have been released by just 100 companies. To the estimated 3 million people employed by these firms should be added their shareholders and financiers, as well as the politicians who have supported their activities. In total, they amount to perhaps 20m people. Put another way, 0.25% of the human population has created an existential problem for 8 billion people and all other species. Despite this, they are continuing to make the problem worse, even now.

2 – This atmospheric imbalance will take many centuries to correct. The last time a change of this magnitude happened, 45m years ago, it took 40,000 years for the planet to come back into equilibrium. (Why do scientists make such a fuss about a 1ºC or 2ºC increase in average global temperatures? See here.)

3 – The conventional solutions presented to solve this problem are not working. Green investments, natural capital solutions, net-zero targets, and the billions spent on renewable energy and electric vehicles have had no useful impact. Emissions are now at their highest-ever level and still growing at an accelerating rate. Despite this, these solutions continue to be favoured, notably by those who have political influence. This is partly because those in power do not fully understand what is happening. Some also want to avoid taking responsibility for such an enormous problem, or having to introduce measures that have unwelcome political consequences. As a result, most people in the world are living under a delusion. They are unable to understand the reality of climate change because they are being told untruths.

4 – The lack of understanding is coupled with a belief that human inventiveness can control nature. This idea has become deeply embedded over many decades. Radically changing this dominant worldview is not possible for most people in any time-frame that is now useful.

5 – Despite this, there is a small minority who understand what is happening and their number is rising as the consequences of climate change become more serious.

What will happen?

The precise effects of climate change over the coming decades are hard to predict, especially when the speed of change so far has taken scientists by surprise. In much of the world, the warming is happening more quickly than anticipated 20 years ago.

Scientists know that future impacts will not be linear – that is, they will not rise evenly. They will increase in seriousness for many decades, as the impact of historical emissions grows. They know too that the threshold for avoiding a 1.5 degrees centigrade rise in average temperatures has passed. This is the level the UN’s IPCC said should not be breached because of the seriousness of the consequences. We now know that this level was breached in 2021, when the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere first exceeded 420 ppm (parts per million). The only reason that the actual temperature has not risen by this amount so far is due to lags in the atmospheric system. The measured rise in average temperatures right now is between 1.1 and 1.3 degrees (it depends partly on el Nino). It is expected to exceed the 1.5 degree level briefly within the next few years, and permanently by the early 2030s**.

Based on current trends, the threshold for avoiding a 2 degree rise in average temperatures compared to pre-industrial times will pass before 2030, when the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere breaks through 450ppm. Theoretically, this could still be avoided if emissions were drastically cut (by at least 50% compared to 2019), and serious efforts were made to draw carbon down from the atmosphere. But there is no sign of either of these measures being considered by any major government. To implement them would mean that the economy would shrink drastically, an inconceivable notion to most people.

The 2 degree threshold is more worrying because it will kick off a chain reaction which will last for centuries. Higher temperatures will lead to increased wildfires. As more trees burn, instead of being carbon sinks, they will become sources of emissions. This will increase the rate of warming further. The coral reefs around the world will also die as the oceans warm, and polar ice as well as glaciers will melt more quickly. This will make the planet less reflective to the sun’s heat. Instead of bouncing back into space, more energy will be absorbed, increasing temperatures even further. More heat will also cause the permafrost in Canada and Siberia to melt faster, releasing more of the CO2 and methane trapped beneath. This will increase the rate of global warming too.

Eventually, the great ocean currents, which transfer heat around the world, are likely to be disrupted too, with unknown consequences. It is possible, for example, that some parts of northern Europe could enter a period of extreme cold if warming waters from the Caribbean stop circulating. The system in the North Atlantic has already slowed markedly.

Put simply, after 2 degrees global warming becomes self-reinforcing. Instead of being caused by human emissions, the heating will enter a self-reinforcing loop where more warming will bring further rises in temperature. Once this process starts, there is nothing much humanity can do to stop it. Geoengineering might be able to hide the effects for a few years, or even a few decades, but it will not be able to push the planetary warming trend into reverse.

Scientists also know that the climate will not undergo drastic change immediately. In human terms it will not change very quickly at all, though in planetary terms it will change very fast indeed. It will take around 20 years before the full impact of passing the 2 degree threshold becomes obvious to everyone (and the climate deniers change their minds), and it will be well into the second half of the 21st century before the worst effects are clear. This is also because of the lags in the atmospheric system. Think about putting a pot of water onto a stove, with the burner on full. It doesn’t boil immediately. The warming process takes time. So it is with the climate.

And it is the same with the cooling process. Boiled water in a pot takes a long time to cool down once the source of heating is turned off. The atmosphere is just the same, and right now humanity is still turning the heat up. It is important to understand too that simply stopping greenhouse gas emissions is not enough. The problem is not only the annual output of damaging gases. It is the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere which needs to be reduced before the planet can start to cool.

By 2050, around 800 million people, one in ten, will have been displaced by rises in sea levels. Many major cities around the world will be badly affected, including London, New York and Shanghai, and it will become increasingly difficult to live in, or farm, many low-lying areas. Many rivers will become brackish, as they are invaded by sea water, just as the Mississippi is being today, threatening supplies of drinking water. By the end of the century sea levels will be around one meter higher than today. While this might seem a lot, because it will impact many hundreds of millions of people, it is very small compared to the rise in sea levels that will come long term.

By 2100, based on current trends, the rise in average temperatures will be nearly 4 degrees. This will take the planet back to how it was 40 million years ago, the last time the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere was so high, although the process will take many centuries.

These very long term changes are expected to come in waves. Scientists think that the average global temperature will continue to rise beyond 2100, but after around 2150 the planet will experience a long period of cooling. This is because the ice at the polar caps will melt faster, and cold water entering the oceans will lower average temperatures globally. Once that process is complete, and the ice caps have gone, sea levels will have risen by around 70 metres. This is expected to be in the early-to-mid 2200s. After then the temperature will rise further, to around 6 or 7 degrees above the long term average. It will take thousands of years to come back to the average of the last 2,000 years, which is 14.5 degrees across the planet.

For most people alive today then, the really obvious impacts of climate change will not become scary until the 2040s onwards. But that is not long from now, especially for those planning to take out a mortgage or save for a pension. It is not long for those who want to work out where their family should live long term. Anyone who takes a 30 year loan to buy a house, almost anywhere in the world, is taking on a climate risk. The house they buy may not be saleable when the loan has been paid off if it sits in a climate-vulnerable part of the world. On the other hand, it could be worth a hundred times more than they paid for it if it is in a climate stable location. The trouble is, no one knows where that will be. Pension payouts are likely to be equally unpredictable, especially when many investment firms don’t understand what is coming.

Should you move house?

This question is particularly hard to answer because it is almost impossible to know where or when major climate events might occur. Scientists cannot yet predict catastrophic wildfires or floods years ahead. It also depends hugely on how good your local community will be at responding to climatic disaster. When a once-in-500-years storm hit Hong Kong in 2023, the government responded quickly and efficiently. That is not likely to be the pattern everywhere. Those countries in the English-speaking world where a belief in individual freedom is deeply embedded are less likely to respond to a prolonged period of climate induced change as well. Places where there is a strong sense of cooperation and community, or where the government has historically taken a more paternal approach to achieving the best possible outcome for the greatest number of people, are likely to fare better. Put more simply: being in Asia or Scandinavia is likely to be better than being in the United States, Australia or Britain. Of course, there will be communities in the English-speaking world where people will support each other when disaster strikes. But the strong sense of individual responsibility in these places is not likely to be helpful when collective action is needed.

If you live in an area which is already being affected by drought, wildfires or flooding, or if you live in an area where sea level rises are causing problems, then moving somewhere else sooner rather than later may make sense. That assumes you have somewhere to go of course, which is not always possible.

If you live in an area where summer temperatures are becoming problematic, then it may be wise to consider moving too. If you live, for example, in the Mediterranean region, summer temperatures and drought are likely to become increasingly problematic in the coming decades. Just as the skiing season in the Alps is shrinking, the summer tourist season in the Mediterranean will become shorter as mean temperatures rise. It will become too hot for most people to want to spend time there in the summer.

Unlike the Alpine skiing season which will slowly be lost, the summer season in the Mediterranean might shift to the spring and autumn. Even so, living in the region during the summer will become more difficult. As well as being too hot, it will become more expensive, with access to food, water and power more complicated. Wildfires, storms, insects, droughts and algal blooms will bring added risks.

The story is much the same in many other places, such as the southern US and Mexico, in central east Asia, as well as much of Australia. Many parts of central Africa, India and South America will be similarly affected.

Those with property in these places will find themselves compromised. Life will become more unpleasant and yet people will be reluctant to move, greatly because of the loss in value of their property. Finding insurance cover will become much harder, or impossible. It has already become impossible in some parts of southern Germany where the rivers are prone to flooding, and in some parts of the United States. Trying to sell a house in areas that are becoming less habitable will have a large impact on the price that can be achieved.

This raises the prospect of people having to abandon their homes when it is too late, without selling them. They will have to relocate without their main asset or perhaps even a means to live. Already, people leaving the coastal areas of Louisiana and moving inland because of rising sea levels, are encountering this problem.

There is also the very difficult question about where to move. This will depend on many factors, both individual and national. It will depend, for example, on the passport you hold and your ability to finance a relocation. It will also depend on identifying the best place to go, from a climate perspective.

What should you look for? A more stable climate, obviously, though this will be extremely hard to define long term. I know of a group of Europeans who moved to western Ireland a decade ago with climate change in mind, thinking that the cool weather, defensibility of the island against attack, and fertile soil made this a wise decision. Now they are finding increased rainfall is causing flooding and food cultivation problems. Migration has become an issue too.

Selecting where to go will be made more complicated because the number of people moving north and south from the equatorial region will steadily rise. As climate problems intensify, there will be an increasing number of people seeking somewhere safe. They will have to move from places they call home, to places they do not necessarily want to go, and where they are unlikely to be welcome. These waves of migration may lead to conflict. The US military and German Bundeswehr have written extensively about this problem.

Climate change is likely to promote insecurity in regions important to the security of Europe, including many parts of Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific, increasing the potential for intra- and inter-state conflict. Mass migration has already become an inter-state flashpoint. Extreme climate change could produce greatly increased migration ‘spikes’, due, for instance, to the island nations in the Indo-Pacific becoming uninhabitable. Conflict over scarce water supplies may become more likely. Indeed, cross-border water management is another potential flashpoint, particularly where tensions are already high, such as along the Euphrates, Indus, Mekong, Nile and Tigris rivers.Green Defence: the defence and military implications of climate change for Europe, 2022, p3

For what it’s worth, my sense is that it will be hard for people to find somewhere to live which will remain socially or environmentally stable for more than a few decades, partly because everywhere that seems stable for a while is likely to become over-populated. Dividing 8 billion into those areas likely to remain stable doesn’t go.

Any stability is also likely to be upset by unexpected shifts in temperatures, droughts or floods. As the ice on the planet melts, and the natural weight balance shifts, there is expected to be more seismic activity. As temperatures rise, new viruses are likely to emerge. Insect-bourne diseases will become common in places they are currently unknown. Harvests will become less predictable, and natural pollination less dependable. Rivers will die and ocean currents will change, all with unexpected and hard-to-anticipate climactic and social consequences. Identifying places that will be unsafe over the coming decades is becoming possible, though difficult. Identifying safe places is much harder. I have chosen a northern temperate zone for now, but I am not 25 years old.

What else should you do?

Again, for what it’s worth, those who understand what is happening should first try to look inwards, to build their inner strength, and then outwards to build their community.

As with most traumatic events, a major step on the road to building inner strength will be acceptance of what is happening. Continued denial risks becoming a hindrance when the biggest challenges lie ahead. Although it is very hard to watch nature being destroyed, and to be constantly reminded of humanity’s global collective folly, those who understand what is happening can find strength by accepting the need for change, not wasting emotional energy hoping for a useful political response or shift in direction. Societies have had more than 30 years to respond to climate change and they have moved ever-faster in the wrong direction. Damaging emissions are higher than ever before, and growing more quickly. Sadly, there is no reason to think there will be a major shift in direction globally in the time remaining.

The second step is to bring the people who understand the wider problem together, link them with other groups around the world, and encourage everyone to work together. This does not mean working with governments on possible solutions to climate change that might actually slow the pace of heating. As a rule, governments across the world are not ready to listen, because the majority remain in denial about the seriousness and intractability of the problem.

It means bringing people together so that they can cooperate going forward. It means thinking through some hard-to-think-through problems, because the best way ahead will require careful planning. Where is a good place to move? How can food and water supplies by protected? How can people work together to maintain a collective purpose? How democratic should the group be? Who should the group concern itself with? Should it only focus on the interests of the group, or should it consider the needs of everyone, even those who deny the climate problem, and who work against change? Should the group have political objectives?

Much thought will need to be given to the problem of climate grief. Those with experience in counselling might be able to help here. What is happening to the climate, with the loss of other species, and what will happen to societies across the world in the coming decades will cause a great deal of suffering. It will not be like responding to the loss of someone close, fighting to escape an abusive relationship, or recovering from already-known traumas. It will be harder for people to move on, to put their grief behind them. Without care, negative emotions risk dominating decision-making, leading to short-termist approaches or reactions which are not necessarily in the best interests of the majority long term.

Those who want to work together need to understand that societies cannot continue as they have in the past. People will need to work together in ways that are entirely new and unconventional. As well as difficult challenges, this will bring new and unexpected rewards, and the chance to rebuild better. It is almost impossible to imagine that people could make more of a hash of human development than they are right now.

The coming decades offer the chance for societies to completely rethink notions of progress, to make life more meaningful and fulfilling for the majority, and for humanity’s presence on this world to become truly sustainable.

** That was what scientists believed in 2022. The 1.5 degree level was actually breached in September 2023, and not by a small amount. That month was 1.8 degrees warmer than the pre-industrial average.

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Images by:

Eco not Ego, No business on a dead planet – Markus Spiske, Pexels

System change not climate change, Ma Ti, Unsplash

1.5 degrees, Mika Baumeister Unsplash

Leaf by Pinakeen Bhatt, Unsplash