Unless we focus on shared solutions, violent storms and devastating blazes could be the least of the world’s troubles. Civilisation itself will be at risk
Mon 30 Dec 2019
‘Good morning. Here is the shipping forecast for midday, 21 June, 2050. Seas will be rough, with violent storms and visibility ranging from poor to very poor for the next 24 hours. The outlook for tomorrow is less fair.”
All being well, this could be a weather bulletin released by the Met Office and broadcast by the BBC in the middle of this century. Destructive gales may not sound like good news, but they will be among the least of the world’s problems in the coming era of peak climate turbulence. With social collapse a very real threat in the next 30 years, it will be an achievement in 2050 if there are still institutions to make weather predictions, radio transmitters to share them and seafarers willing to listen to the archaic content.
I write this imaginary forecast with an apology to Tim Radford, the former Guardian science editor, who used the same device in 2004 to open a remarkably prescient prediction on the likely impacts of global warming on the world in 2020.
Journalists generally hate to go on record about the future. We are trained to report on the very recent past, not gaze into crystal balls. On those occasions when we have to venture ahead of the present, most of us play it safe by avoiding dates that could prove us wrong, or quoting others.
Radford allowed himself no such safe distance or equivocation in 2004, which we should remember as a horribly happy year for climate deniers. George W Bush was in the White House, the Kyoto protocol had been recently zombified by the US Congress, the world was distracted by the Iraq war and fossil fuel companies and oil tycoons were pumping millions of dollars into misleading ads and dubious research that aimed to sow doubt about science.
Radford looked forward to a point when global warming was no longer so easy to ignore. Applying his expert knowledge of the best science available at the time, he predicted 2020 would be the year when the planet started to feel the heat as something real and urgent.
“We’re still waiting for the Earth to start simmering,” he wrote back in that climate-comfortable summer of 2004. “But by 2020 the bubbles will be appearing.”
The heat of the climate movement is certainly less latent. In the past year, the world has seen Greta Thunberg’s solo school strikes morph into a global movement of more than six million demonstrators; Extinction Rebellion activists have seized bridges and blocked roads in capital cities; the world has heard ever more alarming warnings from UN scientists, David Attenborough and the UN envoy for climate action, Mark Carney; dozens of national parliaments and city councils have declared climate emergencies; and the issue has risen further to the fore in the current UK general election than any before it. With only weeks to go until 2020, the bubbles of climate anxiety are massing near the surface.
Radford’s most precise predictions relate to the science. Writing after the record-breaking UK heat of 2003, he warned such scorching temperatures would become the norm. “Expect summer 2020 to be every bit as oppressive.” How right he was. Since then, the world has sweltered through the 10 hottest years in history. The UK registered a new high of 38.7C this July, which was the planet’s warmest month since measurements began.
He also correctly anticipated how much more hostile this would make the climate – with increasingly ferocious storms (for the first time on record, there have been category 5 hurricanes, such as Dorian and Harvey, for four years in a row), intensifying forest fires (consider the devastating blazes in Siberia and the Amazon this year, or California and Lapland in 2018) and massive bleaching of coral reefs (which is happening with growing frequency across most of the world). All of this has come to pass, as have Radford’s specific predictions of worsening floods in Bangladesh, desperate droughts in southern Africa, food shortages in the Sahel and the opening up of the northwest passage due to shrinking sea ice (the huge cruise liner, Crystal Serenity, is among the many ships that have sailed through the Bering Strait in recent years – a route that was once deemed impossible by even the most intrepid explorers).
A couple of his predictions were slightly premature (the snows on Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya have not yet disappeared, though a recent study said they will be gone before future generations get a chance to see them), but overall, Radford’s vision of the world in 2020 was remarkably accurate, which is important because it confirms climate science was reliable even in 2004. It is even more precise today, which is good news in terms of anticipating the risks, but deeply alarming when we consider just how nasty scientists expect the climate to become in our lifetime. Unless emissions are slashed over the next decade, a swarm of wicked problems are heading our way.
How wicked? Well, following Radford’s example, let us consider what the world will look like in 2050 if humanity continues to burn oil, gas, coal and forests at the current rate.
The environment in 2050: flooded cities, forced migration – and the Amazon turning to savannah | The Guardian
Unless we focus on shared solutions, violent storms and devastating blazes could be the least of the world’s troubles. Civilisation itself will be at risk Mon 30 Dec 2019 ‘Good morning. Here is the shipping forecast for midday, 21 June, 2050. Seas will be rough, with violent storms and visibility ranging from poor to very… [Read More]