It is one thing to consider that the planet or the environment are at risk with the onset of climate change, a touchy subject that remains divisive within our current political landscape. However, a new study suggests an even grimmer existential reality: that we’ve already reached the climate change point of no return and the human species itself might likely be wiped out — and all in less than 35 years.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS), assessed models of future climate scenarios, which led the investigators to create new risk categories (“catastrophic” and “unknown”) to help classify the range of global warming’s consequences. Although according to the report, these risks constitute low-probability scenarios, the researchers regard these groups as statistically significant potential threats to human survival.
Climate Change Point of No Return: A Closer Look At The Research
Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a professor of climate and atmospheric sciences at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, along with his former Scripps graduate student Yangyang Xu, now an assistant professor at Texas A&M University, conducted the study.
Ramanathan and Xu based their risk analysis on the goal stated in the 2015 Paris Agreement regarding climate change, that society keeps average global temperatures “well below” a 2°C (3.6°F) increase from what they were before the Industrial Revolution.
Even if the agreement’s parties meet their goal, a global temperature increase of 1.5°C (2.7°F) is still “dangerous,” as per the study. It can cause severe damage to human and natural systems.
A global temperature increase of 3°C (5.4°F) could lead to what Ramanathan and Xu are calling “catastrophic” effects.
An increase greater than 5°C (9°F), which has not happened in at least the past 20 million years, could lead to what they call “unknown” consequences, which they describe as “beyond catastrophic, including potentially existential threats” by the year 2100.
A Three-Pronged Strategy for Hope
However, along with these morbidly disturbing findings, the researchers lay out a plan to prevent these outcomes in the near-term of 2050 and the long-term of 2100 in the form of what they refer to as a “three-lever strategy.” In sum, the following three levers have to be activated to thwart the potentially catastrophic effects of global warming:
- “[T]he carbon neutral (CN) lever to achieve zero net emissions of CO2,”
- “[T]he super pollutant (SP) lever to mitigate short-lived climate pollutants,”
- “[T]he carbon extraction and sequestration (CES) lever to thin the atmospheric CO2 blanket,”
According to the authors, global policymakers must pull these levers by 2020 to prevent the “dangerous and catastrophic” consequences of leaving emissions unchecked.
The Health Risks We Face While We Are Still Here
Until we achieve progress to mitigate the potentially catastrophic consequences of reaching the climate change point of no return, it is important to keep a close eye on the dangerous effects it is already having on us. According to a report published by the American Psychological Association (APA), the findings associate various health risks with the onset of global warming, including:
- Increased feeling of intense, negative emotions (primarily after catastrophic weather events)
- Increased risk for PTSD
- Increased risk of suicide ideation
- Increased risk for anxiety
- Increased risk for mood disorders, like depression
- Loss of personal and professional identity
- Loss of social support structures
- Feeling a loss of control, helplessness, or fatalism
- Increased levels of stress
- Increased interpersonal aggression issues
As we consider the gravity of all these ramifications — as a species and as individuals therein — perhaps we should keep in mind the words of the ex-presidential candidate and ardent climate advocate Al Gore:
“As human beings, we are vulnerable to confusing the unprecedented with the improbable. In our everyday experience, if something has never happened before, we are generally safe in assuming it is not going to happen in the future, but the exceptions can kill you and climate change is one of those exceptions.”
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