Written by Pooran Desai OBE, Founder of OnePlanet

‘Climate changes are happening seventy years earlier than predicted’.  

Professor Sir David King, former UK Chief Scientific Officer

We are crossing climate tipping points decades earlier than predicted. Current ‘net zero’ commitments are no longer in line with the latest scientific evidence. This short briefing summarises some of the latest thinking by leading climate experts, including those who attended the OnePlanet panel event at COP26.

Crossing tipping points

The extreme weather events of 2021 tell us that we are crossing climate tipping points. The unprecedented ‘heat dome’ in British Columbia, Canada reached 5oC hotter than previously recorded. This is outside of accepted climate scenarios. A domino effect of near-term collapse of global weather systems is now likely, if not already underway.

Current ‘net zero’ commitments are no longer in line with the latest evidence

Government and corporate ‘net zero plans’ are built upon widely accepted models such as those used by the United Nations. However, these are no longer in line with the latest scientific evidence.

We are tracking against worst case scenarios because the models and scenarios are built on scientific consensus which:

  1. is slow to materialise
  2. is overly conservative
  3. lags behind the latest evidence and thinking
  4. excludes aspects on which consensus cannot be reached, notably tipping points, which are extremely hard to predict and get agreement on. 

In fact, 96% of climate scientists believe global warming cannot be kept within the internationally agreed safe limit of 1.5oC. Over 80% believe it will rise 3-4oC which is incompatible with civilisation as we know it today.

Key Risks

Apart from near-term rapid acceleration in local risks (flooding, hurricanes, heat waves, droughts, etc – e.g. see UK Environment Agency report ‘Adapt or Die’), key risks include:

  • Simultaneous or concurrent events multiplying impact – eg flooding during a pandemic, or drought followed by flooding
  • Multiple bread-basket failure in two or more of the five main grain producing areas of the world leading to a global food crisis (risk at least doubling by 2030)
  • Mass migration of tens if not hundreds of millions of people due to climate shifts and sea-level rise – eg 95% of Vietnam is now predicted to be underwater in thirty years
  • Unexpected rapid increase in sea level due to 3-5 year collapse of the Thwaites Glacier in the Antarctic. Dubbed the ‘Doomsday Glacier’, it was expected to disintegrate in about one hundred years until a few months ago.
  • A collapse in biodiversity, accelerating climate change, with humans and livestock making up 96% of all mammalian biomass on the planet and all other mammals comprising less than 4%
  • Massively heightened geopolitical instability caused by mass migration and/or a global food crisis

Possible response – ‘Positive Adaptation’

A response to the level of emergency is hard to contemplate. We can hope technology will avert disaster, but it is also fair to say that technology has played a big part in the existential environmental problems which we face today. Regardless, a deeper cultural response is both wise and robust. It can be relevant at local, national and global levels. Such a response might be based on ‘Positive Adaptation’, applying regenerative principles to build resilience at the community level in 

  • food, energy and water, particularly at the local and national level
  • individual mental health/psychological well-being and social well-being

Given the massive but unpredictable impacts which we are likely subjected to in single numbers of years rather than decades, the psychological and social response is perhaps even more critical than the material one.  As Professor Saleemul Al Huq, with experience of adaptation to sea-level rise in Bangladesh notes,

An aware and prepared citizenship is the key element.

Saleemul Al Huq