On Tuesday evening, former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy made a solemn proclamation to a room full of attentive Boston College students: "Make no mistake about it—climate change is the greatest threat to public health, to our economic security, and to our national security that we face today.”
As disconcerting as it might sound, McCarthy echoes sentiment expressed by many in the United States and around the globe. On Oct. 5, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report that reinforced the prevailing anxiety surrounding climate change. The IPCC is a body of scientists convened by the United Nations to “provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts."
The 225 page report, titled “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C,” predicts “with high confidence” that global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at its current rate.
What does this mean? The report paints a dire picture of the immediate consequences of climate change. Warming from anthropogenic emissions from the pre-industrial period to the present will persist for “centuries to millennia,” causing long-term changes in the climate system, such as rising sea levels and species extinction. The report states that up to 50 million people in the United States, Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam will be exposed to increased coastal flooding if the warming occurs.
A 1.5°C increase brings the temperature level dangerously close to the threshold of 2°C established by previous studies as the mark of a “catastrophic” level. The report predicts that a “disproportionately rapid evacuation” of people from the tropics, coupled with an anticipated 32 to 80 million people displaced by rising sea levels would occur at 2°C of warming.
If the pattern of exponential temperature growth continues, the entire state of Florida could be under water by the later half of the twenty-first century. Extreme weather phenomena will appear more frequently and unpredictably. Thirty-seven percent of the world population will be subject to severe heat waves, similar to the one experienced globally in the summer of 2018.
If statistical figures are not alarming enough, recent events have made the consequences of climate change painfully clear. In 2017 alone, two category five hurricanes—Irma and Maria—were recorded. Both hurricanes resulted in catastrophic damage and fatalities in affected regions.
The impact of climate change is not limited to the environment alone. Climate-related risks to human health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, national security, and economic growth are all projected to increase with global warming.
Extreme weather events, along with the health effects of burning fossil fuels, have cost the U.S. economy at least $240 billion per year over the past ten years. The three major hurricanes and 76 wildfires in nine Western states during September 2017 alone caused economic losses estimated to top $300 billion. To put this loss into perspective, $300 billion is enough money to provide free tuition for the 13.5 million U.S. students enrolled in public colleges and universities for four years.
In the coming decade, economic losses from extreme weather combined with the health costs of air pollution will spiral upward to at least $360 billion annually. The United States could lose roughly 1.2 percent of gross domestic product for every 1.8°F of warming. The report also estimates the $54 trillion in damage from 1.5°C of warming would grow to $69 trillion if the world continues to warm by 2°C and beyond.
Economic turbulences can translate into serious political turmoil. The IPCC predicted as early as 1990 that the greatest single consequence of climate change could be migration, “with millions of people displaced by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding, and severe drought.”
Desertification, lack of water, salinization of irrigated lands and the depletion of biodiversity could all result in environmental displacement, which is projected to be as high as 250 million by 2050. It is almost certain that political unrest will ensue following such massive displacement.
Under the Trump administration, the United States has taken a hostile stance against the science of climate change. Although President Trump has remained silent about the IPCC report, which was written and edited by 91 scientists from 40 countries who analyzed more than 6,000 scientific studies, he has repeatedly mocked the science of human-caused climate change.
On more than one occasion, he referred to climate change as a “hoax orchestrated by the Chinese.” Trump also vowed to increase the burning of coal and said he intends to withdraw from the Paris agreement, the landmark 2015 pact by 195 nations to fight climate change.
The Trump administration’s hostility towards climate science has translated into legislative policy making. In the fiscal 2019 proposal, a 31% budget cut of roughly $5.7 billion is imposed on the EPA. The termination of 3,200 positions, or more than 20% of the agency’s workforce, is also included even though staffing is already at Reagan-era levels, having lost hundreds of employees to buyouts and retirement over the past year. The administration also lowered the price of carbon to about $7 per ton, in comparison to the range of $50 per ton estimated by government economists under the Obama administration.
The United States is not alone in failing to sufficiently reduce emissions to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The report concluded that the world is already more than halfway to the 2°C mark. Human activities have already caused about 1.8°C of warming of since large-scale coal industrial coal burning began in the 1850s.
The report emphasizes a tax on carbon dioxide emissions as a potential solution, saying, “A price on carbon is central to prompt mitigation.” The report estimates that to be effective, the carbon tax would have to range from $135 to $5,500 per ton of carbon dioxide pollution by 2030, and from $690 to $27,000 per ton by 2100.
The report also proposes a scenario in which the world could overshoot the 1.5°C target and heat up by more than 2°C degrees. If this scenario came to fruition, temperatures could be brought back below the threshold through a combination of lowering emissions and deploying carbon capture technology. This scenario might seem attractive to political leaders as it does not require dramatic, rapid changes. However, some damage, such as the loss of all coral reefs, would be irreversible.
The report points out that the greenhouse gas reduction pledges put forth under the Paris agreement will not be enough to avoid 3.6°C of warming. On the other hand, it argues that sustainable development supports and enables the fundamental societal transformation that could help limit global warming to a 1.5°C increase.
The report asserts “with high confidence” that such changes will facilitate the pursuit of climate-resilient development pathways that achieve mitigation in conjunction with poverty eradication and efforts to reduce inequalities. However, this all depends on international cooperation as the “critical enabler” for the strengthening of the capacity for climate action of national and sub-national authorities, civil society, the private sector, indigenous peoples, and local communities that can support the implementation of ambitious actions.
Is catastrophic climate change inevitable? Many Boston College students are doing their part to prevent it. EcoPledge, a student-run environmental club that works toward making Boston College a more sustainable campus, has taken initiative by organizing ocean clean-up trips, volunteering at harvest fests, and collecting signatures on campus to push through legislation on environmental causes.
Grassroots efforts like these are crucial in the fight against climate change, as Gina McCarthy stressed. “It is not only the president of the United States that represents this country, but each and every one of us. We have to embrace this challenge together. The impossible always is impossible until it gets done. We just need to get it done.”