What Happens When the World Gets Warmer?

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What Happens When the World Gets Warmer?

A pre-warning, there is not a lot of good news in this week's blog.


What are the targets?

The Paris Climate agreement formally agreed with the world's governments to commit to limiting global warming to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels with a target of 1.5C. The aim of this commitment is to limit the global harm that will accompany a rise in temperature of this magnitude.

Why are they necessary?

The list of consequences of global warming is long, the IPCC Special Report on Global warming lists the most impactful consequences with high to very high likelihood based on a review of 6000 literature reviewed journal articles. 10 of these consequences are listed below out of a total of 40 [2]:

  • We are already seeing a significant increase in heat waves both on land and in the marine environment. The recent heatwave in the pacific northwest resulted in the death of 100’s of millions of marine creatures and hundreds of human deaths. The likelihood of these events will increase exponentially with increases in global temperatures. 
  • We are already seeing a significant increase in precipitation in several regions. Recent flooding in Germany and China highlights the danger of these events and shows they can happen at random, in areas without preparation with extreme consequences for human life and property. The likelihood of these events will increase exponentially with increases in global temperatures. 
  • The global warming impact will not impact everyone evenly. A global average increase of 1.5C means there will be regions that will see an increase of 2-3C in the same window of time; for these areas the consequences in this list will be very extreme and will result in many areas of the planet becoming uninhabitable for human life. Sadly this will include a lot of the nicest places. as tropical paradises turn to desert.
  • A 1.5C increase in global temperature will also bring with it an additional 4 million sq km of additional desert, resulting in unprecedented mass migration, hunger and malnutrition. 
  • We are already starting to see the more frequent occurrence of extreme drought. It is expected that the drought currently affecting US West Coast would previously be classed as a 1 in a 1000-year event; this will likely change to a 1 in every 5-year event over the next 2 decades. This level of drought is enough to make dams run dry, destroy crop yields and significantly increase the likelihood of forest fire.
  • If temperatures were to hit 2C above pre-industrial levels it is likely that we would begin to see summers where the Arctic Ocean will have no sea ice every 10 years. To put this into perspective this would only happen once every 100 years if the target of 1.5C is not exceeded. At 3C there will no longer be sea ice in the Arctic Ocean.
  • One of the most devastating consequences of global warming is sea level rise. At 1.5C increase above pre-industrial levels there will still be significant rises with predictions ranging from 0.26m to 0.77m by 2100. If temperatures were to increase by 2C there would be an additional 0.1m rise by the end of the century resulting in the loss of home and community for an additional 10.4m people and trillions dollars in additional damage. 
  • Approximately 30% of human caused CO2e emissions are absorbed by the sea, significantly increasing its acidity resulting in a change in ocean chemistry that hasn’t been seen for over 65 million years. Alongside ocean warming this will result in an unprecedented change in marine biology and extinction of many species
  • Extinction events for wildlife will result in a species loss of 6% of insects, 8% of plants and 4% of vertebrates at the 1.5C target. If we were to reach 2C this would jump to 18% of insects, 16% of plants and 8% of vertebrates. This is a very clear indication of the exponential nature of damage caused by temperature rise; a 33% increase in temperature results in more than 100% more damage to certain ecosystems. 
  • Water scarcity (lack of access to drinkable water) will be twice as bad at 2C vs 1.5C.

What progress have we made?

Sadly, the news isn’t good here either. Some nations have made huge amounts of progress in cutting emissions, but globally we have a lot of work to do.

Check out figure 1 below. This dataset has been generated by NASA and shows average annual global temperatures dating back to 1880; we can call this the baseline year. 

Since the year 2000 we have recorded 19 of the hottest annual average temperatures since the baseline year. Yes, that's right. In the last 20 years we have recorded the hottest 19 years since records began. As you read this we have reached the 1C above pre-industrial limit and the previous 20 year trajectory indicates that we will hit the 1.5C in only 20 years with the potential to hit 2C in the following 20 years. 


It is difficult to fully understand how this will impact our lives but I feel like we can use our current situation as a benchmark. COVID 19 has devastated the world, cost economies 10s of trillions USD and has taken somewhere between 5 and 15 million lives so far. But with COVID 19 there is a solution, a magic bullet that gives us hope. The hope is that life will return to normal once we have vaccinated a large enough number of people. In some areas of the world normality is already starting to return. 

For climate change I would predict a very different picture. We won't fully understand the negative consequences until it hits us square in the jaw and by that point there will probably not be a magic bullet to give us any hope of life returning to normal. 

[1] - Alarming climate change: Earth heads for its tipping point as it could reach +1.5 °C over the next 5 years, WMO finds in the latest study

[2] - This IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C,

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