The world has gambled on the appearance of “a carbon-sucking fairy godmother”, the UK climate scientist Kevin Anderson wrote in response to last year’s adoption of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
Ten months later and the agreement – which aims to limit the global average temperature rise to “well below 2°C” – is finally official. The European Parliament’s vote to ratify the accord has pushed international support over the required 55 per cent threshold. Ministers from individual member states will travel to New York on Friday to deposit their documents; 30 days after that, the deal will come into force.
Yet a happy ending is far from certain. As Anderson feared, carbon sequestration techniques are making concerningly slow progress. Donald Trump’s threats to increase America’s fossil fuel consumption loom over the agreement. And the UK – which once lead the way, with its 2008 Climate Change Act – has yet to officially ratify the accord.
Meanwhile the consequences of rising temperatures are turning from fantasy to reality: CO2 levels above Mauna Loa in Hawaii last week passed the important “Tipping Point” of 400 parts per million. The planet is thought to be at its hottest in 115,000 years.
So, here are five previews of what could lie ahead if the Paris Agreement fails in its aims.
Anthrax in the Arctic
This August, record-high summer temperatures in the Siberian arctic exposed the frozen body of an anthrax-infected reindeer. The bacteria unleashed resulted the death of one child and hospitalised dozens. Russian forces rushed in to contain the infection and launch a mass vaccination program – yet thanks to a mass outbreak among caribou in the 1930s, plenty more carcasses lie just beyond the permafrost’s surface.
According to Professor Claire Hefferman, chair of infectious diseases at Bristol university, the arctic is a “pandora’s box” just waiting to fully open. Not only is the region warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, but declining bio-diversity is reducing disease-resistance among local ecosystems – and the eight arctic nations as yet have little co-ordinated means of handling biosecurity hazards. Polar bears are already suffering from a virus that originated in domestic cats – possibly due to litter tray content being flushed down toilets as far away as Scandinavia.
We all know we have to worry about polar bears, but spare a thought for camels too. These extraordinary creatures are famous for thriving in some of the world’s most arid regions. Their milk-bearing capacity has led them to be touted as the “new cows” in regions where cattle and goats are susceptible to worsening drought.
Fewer of these. Image: Getty.
Yet across the world, from China to Somalia, even the mighty camel is struggling to survive. Lengthy droughts are wilting its grasslands and cutting off water supplies. As one Somalian elder commented after camels started to die: “Our life depends entirely on livestock. And if we lose it, then we have lost everything.” They’ve also already been the victims of climate change once before: 15,000 years ago their giant ancestors were wiped out in South America.
If this wasn’t bad enough, a heatwave in India caused one tethered and forgotten camel such distress that, when his owner finally returned, he bit off his head.
A cold-er war
Back in the Arctic, it’s not just viral threats that lie under the melting permafrost, but chemical ones too.
During the Cold War, the Americans built a secret nuclear weapon test site in the Greenland wilderness, known as “Project Iceworm”. The site’s 4,000km of underground tunnels and chambers were abandoned in 1967 and the toxic nuclear waste was left there to freeze. But as the ice sheet melts, the camp could be uncovered – as soon as 2090, according to the authors of a recent study.
The melting ice “would guarantee the eventual remobilisation of physical, chemical, biological, and radiological wastes abandoned at the site,” the authors write, and could “represent an entirely new pathway of political dispute resulting from climate change”.
Fish out of waters
“A real catch”, “I fell for her hook, line and sinker”, “a shark just ate my girlfriend, will you be my new one?” – these are all sentiments that Cornish cod may struggle to communicate to their new, North Sea, dates. Professor Steve Simpson, from the University of Exeter, told the Press Association: “This species is highly vocal with traditional breeding grounds established over hundreds or thousands of years, so the potential for regionalism is there.”
As climate change raises sea temperatures, cold water fish are already migrating north. If breeding disruption adds to the challenges that marine life already face, the phrase “plenty more fish in the sea” may no longer be much of a comfort.
Melting motorways and sinking stations
India made international headlines this summer when a heatwave melted the roads in Gujurat, quite literally under one boy’s feet – leaving him to fight his way across with only one shoe.
Closer to home, the phenomenon is already familiar to Brits: in 2003 railways buckled, roads melted and the London Eye was forced to close. According to the MET Office, summers just as hot could happen every other year by 2050. While the Committee on Climate Change has projected that an estimated 1.8m people, 100 tube stations and the Houses of Parliament are all at risk of flooding. Keeping one’s cool in such challenging scenarios will be all the harder, thanks to the threat to coffee production, breweries, and rising allergy levels.
Some solutions are already at hand. Understanding the diverse ways that climate change could touch us helps to highlight the need for multiple modes of response. Those responses start with emissions reduction and clean-energy deployment, but also extend far beyond – into countering the loss of biodiversity, providing infrastructure and re-location support for vulnerable communities, and extending international co-operation on healthcare and education. Fairy godmothers need not apply.
India Bourke is editorial assistant at the New Statesman.