In Our Hands: Our climate future – a review

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In Our Hands: Our climate future – a review

By Julia Samyui-Adams

The end of the age of fossil fuels has begun, but there is an urgent need for dramatic acceleration in the pace of action to stabilise our climate.

Christopher Merchant, Professor of Oceans and Earth Observation from the University of Reading, recently urged Henley residents to take action on climate and nature by using their voice. “The pressure for change has to come from grassroots”, he said.

Speaking to a packed room at Henley Town Hall, as part of Great Big Green Week 2024, Professor Merchant took us on a journey through the science of global warming, emphasising that there is no stable climate whilst we keep burning fossil fuels on a large scale. In 2022 we were at 1.2 degrees of warming; last year, 2023, the average world temperature breached 1.5 degrees for the first time. Professor Merchant confirmed that we are currently on track to 3 degrees of warming.

The phenomenal impact of small numbers

Let’s just pause there. 3 degrees of warming – seems like a fairly small number? To give context to this relatively abstract concept, Professor Merchant pointed out that at just 5 degrees of global cooling from pre-industrial levels we would be in an Ice Age, stressing that “every degree counts. Every tenth of a degree counts. 5 degrees of cooling completely transforms the world.” Thoughts on 3 degrees of warming feel somewhat different after digesting this.

Every degree counts. Every tenth of a degree counts. 5 degrees of cooling completely transforms the world.

Professor Christopher Merchant

He went on to explain how tipping points in the climate system are triggered at different thresholds of warming. Once triggered, these self-sustaining shifts are irreversible and will lock-in devastating changes, like sea-level rise. Even if all emissions end abruptly, once started these tipping points cannot be stopped. By the time we see their consequences, we cannot turn back the clock.

Something to consider for the distant future?  Not really. Between 1.5 and 2 degrees of global warming we can expect to experience major climate impacts, including: coral reef die-off (affecting the fisheries on which millions of people depend), intensified thawing of permafrost around the Arctic (releasing huge amounts of methane, making climate stabilisation even harder than currently expected), and triggering of the inevitable loss of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets (resulting in dramatic sea-level rise). Although the timing of such impacts is uncertain, the risk of them occurring increases with every tenth of a degree of global warming above 1.5 degrees. 

Redrawing our maps with sea level rise

We heard how the disappearance of either the Greenland or West Antarctic ice sheets would give us a sea level rise of around 5 metres. The time taken to reach such a level is difficult to predict, but in the ‘plausible worst case’ it could be by the middle of next century. Just close your eyes and try to visualise how this would change our coastline – how would your favourite coastal location look with a 5 metre sea level rise? As an example, Professor Merchant noted that the Thames Flood Barrier should continue to protect London from 1 metre of sea level rise, but studies have concluded that it is not feasible to protect Central London from the sea if 5 m of sea level rise were exceeded. Unless net zero policies succeed in stabilising the climate well below 2 degrees, it is possible that the grandchildren of people alive today might see such consequences.

Thinking about the impact and the human consequences of possible scenarios like these can feel overwhelming, and it was visibly apparent that Professor Merchant shares this feeling. Pausing for a moment, he went on to emphasise that accelerating global action to stabilise the climate is urgently needed to prevent the worst scenarios coming to pass.

So what now?

Presenting a graph illustrating how long the UK coal industry took to get going, versus how quickly coal was phased out, he announced – “it can be done!!” He spoke of how seeing this graph had changed his mind about what the future may hold if we can similarly mobilise at speed to move away from fossil fuels in industry, transport and buildings.

He explained how, as we transition towards powering our lives only from low-carbon sources, we will be kick-starting new industries and green jobs. Technological transformation generally requires upfront investment with support from governments for research and creation of new markets, but once new technologies approach profitability without such support, investors come on board with private money and the job of governments and public money is done. Despite this being a well known progression, it is initially costly to governments and it can seem politically risky unless they know they have the support of the public. Professor Merchant locked eyes on the audience. “Let’s use our influence,” he recommended. “Governments need to know the public is behind strong action on climate.”

It really does come down to us I’m afraid. The future really is in your hands.

Professor Christopher Merchant

He asked everyone in the room to reach out and discuss these vital issues within their own sphere of influence, by starting a conversation – be that socially, at work, or within an organisation or group they belong to. He went on to make a strong point that, whilst these issues have to be addressed politically in order to achieve change at the pace required, there must be a vision beyond party politics, independent of a 5 year government term. “Policy on climate and nature must be a cross-party issue”, he said, emphasising that consistency on climate policy is vital for business confidence and that climate and nature should not be a party-political weapon.

Political cohesion

Professor Merchant drew everyone’s attention to the Climate and Nature Bill (CAN Bill), the campaign by Zero Hour. He explained that this is a cross-party Bill drawn up by scientists, academics and lawyers that would transform the UK’s approach to tackling the climate and biodiversity crisis, ensuring that Government policy is brought into line with the latest scientific advice. He is one of over 200 scientists supporting the Bill – the only proposed legislation before the UK Parliament that ensures a comprehensive and joined-up approach to the emergency. By signing the open letter, or supporting the Bill as an organisation, we can provide our government with the mandate they need to proceed with swift, robust action on climate and nature. Backing the CAN Bill is an opportunity to get behind cross-party political action.

As Professor Merchant’s talk drew to an end, he asked us to use our voices more widely to push for change and left us with a motivational quote:

The risks of climate change may be greater than is commonly realised, but so is our capacity to confront them.

Simon Sharpe, author of ‘5x Faster’

Gratitude – and positive action!

This talk was a real highlight of Great Big Green Week for me. It is clear that, as irreversible climate ‘tipping points’ approach, scientists are trying to figure out how to communicate these risks – and promote swift action. As an audience member I am grateful not only for the expert opinion Professor Merchant so ably presented, but also for the vulnerability and honesty he demonstrated in his talk. It was so powerful to have before me a scientist, who deals in facts, who doesn’t overstate things, but who in knowing the risks and the severity of the situation also visibly cares. It is in sharing ourselves in this way that we connect as a community, develop trust and find ways to move forward together.

The time is now to start a climate conversation. The time is now to let your support for action on climate and nature be known to governments, giving them a mandate for strong climate policy. The time is now to push for change wherever you have influence.

With great thanks to Professor Merchant for the impetus.

the Big Green Conversation logo

At Greener Henley we’ve launched a campaign that works to one of the same ends Professor Merchant urged his audience to pursue: The Big Green Conversation. It is through talking with others that we build unity around the things that are important to our communities – be that at work, with friends, or at home. These conversations can be an important catalyst for changing our behaviours and inspiring action, empowering everyone to understand the problems we are facing and how we can address them.

Start a Big Green Conversation, join Greener Henley, and inspire positive change!

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