I remember widespread public anxiety and depression in the 1960s and 1970s over the prospect of mutually assured destruction and a nuclear winter in the event of a global nuclear war. And today, public anxiety (“eco-anxiety”) about climate change is increasing around the world. The American Psychiatric Association recognizes that climate change is a significant threat to mental health. Eco-anxiety is a normal reaction to public warnings about the consequences of climate change, but it is unhealthy when it becomes excessive.
There are very good reasons to be concerned about global warming. The latest report (August 2021) from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that planet Earth is in bad shape. Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are higher than ever in human history, the average global temperature is 1.2 degrees higher than pre-industrial temperature and increasing, the oceans are becoming more acidic, the ice caps glaciers disintegrate, natural disasters worsen and ecosystems threaten to collapse. Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are at the root of all of this.
But things are far from hopeless, as Sarah Kaplan aptly summed up in the Washington Post. The IPCC reports that if we drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reaching net zero emissions over the next few decades, difficult to achieve but doable, we have a good chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees at above pre-industrial levels. An increase of 1.5 degrees would trigger additional adverse conditions – longer heat waves, more intense rainfall, more frequent droughts, but within the limits of our ability to cope.
On the other hand, if we don’t cut emissions further, the average global temperature will likely rise 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2050, and by the time today’s babies hit the pension. old age, warming could approach 4 degrees. It would be very serious – for example, major storms would result in much more rain, droughts would occur five times more often, multiple natural disasters could combine (“compound events”) causing widespread chaos and intense warming could trigger uncontrollable weather changes.
One frightening possibility is the stopping of the Southern Atlantic Reversing Circulation (AMOC), the currents that carry heat through the oceans. If AMOC were to stop, severe cold could take hold of Europe and parts of North America, sea levels would rise dramatically and monsoons would rise seasonally, providing water to a large part of the world, would be disrupted.
These projections are accompanied by great uncertainties; for example, we don’t know how much warming would stop AMOC. However, we are already having problems due to the current warming and we know for sure that further global warming will cause even more problems. We would be foolish to test the accuracy of climate modeling predictions by not drastically reducing emissions as soon as possible.
Commentators abound claiming that human-induced climate change has already doomed the planet or will soon do so if we do not meet some unattainable goals within years. These predictions induce widespread depression and even despair. Many young people are reluctant to have children, fearing to inherit a ruined land.
The situation is analogous to that of aging, faced with an inevitable gradual deterioration of the body
But science can’t stand desperation. Climate change will not destroy human society. There is no predictable temperature at which all will be lost. We will survive even under very difficult circumstances, but the more effective the actions we take now, the better our prospects. Every ton of carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere increases warming, every ton we stop emitting decreases the impact of warming. Let’s say we fail to limit the increase in temperature to 1.5 degrees, and it increases by 1.7 degrees. Well, it’s better than 1.8 degrees and 1.8 degrees is better than 2 degrees.
The situation is analogous to getting older, faced with an inevitable gradual deterioration of the body. You may be depressed and doing nothing or you may get the most out of things, follow medical advice on diet and exercise, and greet each day knowing your situation is probably as good as it gets. We can improve the climate situation through personal actions (driving electric cars, using public transport, insulating homes, minimizing waste, etc.) and pressuring the government to act.
Finally, it is to be hoped that scientific advances will make it possible to improve the situation fairly quickly, for example by facilitating the large-scale removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. While two climate modellers have won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics, the Nobel Committee is expected to establish a Climate Change Prize to be awarded to scientists who achieve breakthrough breakthroughs; a proposal that should be debated at COP26, the UN climate summit in November.
William Reville is professor emeritus of biochemistry at UCC