Climate change is happening — but it's not game-over yet

Global warming isn't just an environmental problem — it will affect every aspect of human life. Our response has to be just a wide-reaching — and experts say people power can still save the planet.

The world is getting hotter. That's clear to farmers whose crop yields were hit by heat waves across southern Europe, Asia and the United States this summer. It's clear to hospital staff who struggled to cope with the physical effects of that heat on the human body. And to those who lost their homes in forest fires across southern Europe and the US.

Nature and Environment | 06.11.2017

The weather has becomes a deadly force. Just ask the victims of the recent record-breaking hurricanes that swept the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, and storm flooding that's increasingly inundating tropical coastlines around the world.

Yet in terms of human costs, these sudden, dramatic events pale in comparison to the droughts gripping large parts of East Africa, where aid agencies warn that 800,000 children are at risk of starvation.

In these droughts, global temperature rise is undoubtedly a factor — and it can unleash a deadly chain of consequences, as food shortages contribute to mass migration and fuel conflict.

Nature and Environment | 03.11.2017

In October, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research held a conference on climate change impacts, warning that "if the climate is destabilized, it can destabilize society too.

"The consequences of global warming not only lead to economic damage —they also damage human health, intensify the forces driving migration and threaten the prospects of development for the world's poorest."

Maria wreaks havoc on Dominica, during this year's devastating Caribbean hurricane season

Theory becomes a stark reality

Climate scientist Wallace Broecker coined the term "global warming in 1975," with a paper entitled Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?

How great the impact would be was then still unclear — and debated only among a relatively small community of scientists and activists. 

Four decades on, global warming has proved a very real ecological problem — as well as a health problem, a social problem, a political problem and an economic one.

Climate change and its consequences have gone from a niche scientific concern to making daily headlines — and an unprecedented effort at global cooperation between nations.

Next week, world leaders gather in Bonn, Germany, for the latest round of negotiations aimed at slowing the temperature rise and bracing for its consequences. It's coming on two years since the Paris Agreement was hailed as a breakthrough, with almost all the world's governments committing to cutting emissions.

The agreement is a sign of how far we've come in recognizing the need to act. But there's still much to do. So far, the pledges made under the global agreement fall well short of keeping the global temperature rise below the agreed limit of 2 degrees Celsius.

But to avert climate disaster, these conferences — including upcoming COP23 — are just part of the solution.

Dale Jamieson, professor of environmental studies and philosophy at New York University, warns against pinning the world's hopes on "great men looking deeply into each others eyes in Bonn and committing the world to some alternative course of action."

"COP is not, for the most part, where things really happen," Jamieson said. The driving force comes from democratic pressure on those "great men" and women, along with deeper changes in how we all think about the kind of world we want to live in.

Local action leads the way

In the case of the United States, the limited power of world leaders could be a godsend. After President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the climate agreement, cities and states across the country stepped up and vowed to meet the targets regardless.

And they are not alone. Local and state governments around the world have set their own emissions reductions targets and deadlines to give up coal — often more progressive than national ones.

Seven cities striving to be more sustainable

Making a city sustainable

Energy efficiency, eco-friendly transport, social inclusion - many factors contribute to the sustainability of cities. Although they are not all easy to achieve, some urban centers have made bigger steps forward than others. In its annual State of the World report, the Worldwatch Institute highlights some cities that are striving to be more sustainable.

Seven cities striving to be more sustainable

Park life

Green space is particularly important to the people of Melbourne, Australia, where the city manages more than 480 hectares of park land. Over the past few decades, around 46 hectares of streets and parking lots have been converted into green space and the city hopes to be able to provide 20 square meters of open space per person. Time for a trip Down Under and don’t forget your picnic blanket!

Seven cities striving to be more sustainable

Say no to coal

China is the world's largest energy consumer and the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide - which is hardly a recipe for sustainability. And yet, at least one of its cities is trying to make a change. In Shanghai, use of coal is dropping, while non-fossil fuel energy is expected to rise to 12 percent by the end of 2015 - double that of 2010. The city is also home to China's first offshore wind farm.

Seven cities striving to be more sustainable

Take a tram

After taking the step of diverting car traffic from its center, Germany's university city of Freiburg had to find another way for students to make it to lectures. The answer? An extensive transit network, which means no residence is more than 300 meters from a tram or a bus stop.

Seven cities striving to be more sustainable

Green economy

Green jobs, carbon neutral buildings and a focus on supporting the local food industry - the Canadian city Vancouver has a "bright green future." In 2011, the city council approved the Greenest City 2020 Action Plan. Since then, the city has integrated policies with the hope they will bring it to an environmentally friendly future.

Seven cities striving to be more sustainable

Water, water, everywhere …

Singapore is a world leader in desalination, and its national water strategy is just one of the factors that highlights Singapore's sustainability. Almost all urban rainwater is harvested and stored in drinking water reservoirs, while water pollution is also kept in check.

Seven cities striving to be more sustainable

Braving the bus

Pune was the first Indian city to implement a bus rapid transit (BRT) pilot - much like this one in South Korea. The scheme uses dedicated bus lanes to promote ease of travel. The Rainbow BRT includes 30 kilometers of bus lanes, and serves more than 100,000 people. The first few months saw a 12 percent increase in the number of people hopping on the bus.

Seven cities striving to be more sustainable

Bustling biodiversity

Harmony between humans and nature is one of the things Barcelona is trying to achieve with its sustainability plan. The metropolitan area is home to more than 2,000 plant species, 28 mammal species and 184 types of birds, as well as reptiles, fish and more.

Recently, cities including London, Los Angeles, Paris, Mexico City, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Vancouver and Cape Town committed to banning the combustion engine in at least parts of their urban landscapes.

Robert Costanza, an ecological economist at the Crawford School of Public Policy in Australia, says "that's where a lot of the action is going to be" because "local initiatives have major advantages."

"That's where the rubber meets the road — but also they can serve as models for other places to show the feasibility, the desirability, really of taking this alternative strategy," he says.

From state-level political programs like California's rapid advance toward decarbonization, to "transition towns" where much smaller communities are experimenting with zero-waste and circular economies — localities can test an idea to be replicated elsewhere. 

Taking control of the future

Yet while some experiment with radical news ways living, for many of us, it can be hard to connect to the fact that benign actions — like eating a hamburger or driving your kids to soccer practice — contribute to terrible environmental damage and loss of human life. And the problem can seem just too big and terrifying to fix.

Costanza says we need radical change – away from a society obsessed with growth and consumption to one that lives within the means of a finite planet. But the good news is, the things we need to give up — power stations that foul up the air and the endless accumulation and wealth — aren't what make us happy anyway.

How to stop climate change? Start now!

Number 10: Upgrade lightbulbs

You just bought a fancy lamp? Make it cooler with efficient lightbulbs. This is one of the small actions that make a difference in the long-term - and let's be honest, it's not a big effort. Some LED bulbs consume up to 90 percent less than traditional ones.

How to stop climate change? Start now!

Number 9: Hang laundry to dry

In cold or rainy countries, the task might be challenging - but these challenges are nothing compared to the worst consequences of climate change.

How to stop climate change? Start now!

Number 8: Recycling

Recycling has become normal behavior for thousands of people around the world. It definitely contributes to making a better world - but unfortunately, it is not enough.

How to stop climate change? Start now!

Number 7: Wash clothes on cold

Worried about your clothes shrinking in hot water? Here another reason to keep washing with cold water: Since it avoids turning on the water heater, cold-water washing also produces less greenhouse gas emissions.

How to stop climate change? Start now!

Number 6: Drive a hybrid

Until you are ready to get rid of your car completely, you could move to a hybrid electric car. But beware: The electricity that powers it is probably still coming from dirty fossil fuels.

How to stop climate change? Start now!

Number 5: Switch to a vegetarian diet

Beef production is the largest driver of tropical deforestation worldwide, with soy production closely following - mainly to feed animals. The carbon footprint of a meat-based diet is almost double that of a vegetarian one. Even reducing the amount of meat you eat makes a difference.

How to stop climate change? Start now!

Number 4: Buy green energy

Renewable energies are the new trend - but we are still largely dependent on fossil fuels such as coal. In countries like Germany, you can choose your energy provider - among some that draw from renewable sources.

How to stop climate change? Start now!

Number 3: Cancel one trans-Atlantic flight

Air travel is a major challenge when it comes to tackling climate change. Policy-makers are exploring ways to reduce the climate impact of flights - but in the meantime, you can start thinking twice before taking a plane. Particularly to cross the pond.

How to stop climate change? Start now!

Number 2: Don't use a car

Getting rid of your car is the second-most effective action you can take to tackle climate change. And riding your bike also helps keep you fit!

How to stop climate change? Start now!

Number 1: Have one less child

Giving birth to a new person consuming and polluting at the current rate of people in industrialized countries is the worst thing you can do for the planet, according to the study. But if you start now with the other nine actions, your kids might be able to live in a better world.

Rather than being motivated by fear, he counsels that we imagine the kind of future we want and work towards it as a positive goal.

That's happening in a growing debate over an alternative to GDP as a measure of prosperity, a renewed interest in how indigenous communities use resources and a growing emphasis on the knowledge and sharing economies, which don't require huge inputs of material resources.

These conversations are happening in tandem with campaigns like the divestment movement getting institutions to pull out of fossil fuel assets, the Atmospheric Trust which is suing for damage of the "atmospheric commons" — and the public pressure put on leaders to get results in Bonn.

Courage to act

For all the positive signs that we're moving in the right direction, whether we can realize the world we want before it's too late remains to be seen. It depends both on how the climate responds, and how we as a global community act.

"Over the next 40 years or so, nature is going to play her cards — and the political systems and our cultural systems will either respond well, or they won't," said Peter Timmerman, associate professor of environmental studies at York University Toronto.

Climate scientists point out that although we are still dealing with major uncertainties, we cannot rule out worst-case scenarios that conjure up a world of catastrophic weather, massive sea-level rise, plague and war.

Yet Timmerman says however dire our prospects look, we must act — even if out of blind faith. He says for him, the motivation is not fear.

"What motivates me is that I think this is the best planet ever. And there isn't going to be another really great one like this."

Kids4Climate: The Earth in 50 years

A sinking world

Samuel is only 10 years old, but when it comes to describing how climate change will impact our planet, he has a clear answer: water will rise so much that people living near the sea will be begging for help to survive. But why does it happen? "Because of the extreme pollution," he says.

Kids4Climate: The Earth in 50 years

The last sunrise?

While Daniel (7) loves contemplating the sun, he wonders whether it will still be here in 50 years. He is hoping it only changes slightly, and that sunsets and sunrises will still be beautiful and colorful and will keep delighting adults and children. He's already urging his parents to recycle at home. After all, it's his future that's at stake.

Kids4Climate: The Earth in 50 years

Hold your breath

In a near future, flying cars will still be as polluting as cars nowadays, the sky will rarely look blue due to pollution, and humankind will completely forget the importance of nature - even the last of the trees will be removed. To top it off, droughts will be so bad in some places that ships will be stranded. And for that, Paloma (10) points out, we don't need to wait 50 years but only 15.

Kids4Climate: The Earth in 50 years

Escaping heat waves

Emma (7) has been traveling through southeast Asia in recent months and has loved the experience. But it was so hot! She learned from her mom that global temperatures are increasing every year. Therefore it's not surprising how she imagines the planet in the future: the sun will almost burn out and people will be forced to leave Earth – in rockets, of course.

Kids4Climate: The Earth in 50 years

A new home: Mars

Life on another planet is exactly what Linus (12) imagines - more concretely, on Mars. In 50 years, the Earth will be immersed in such chaos that we will have to look for a better place. But even there, we will not have learned the lesson and we will leave another trail of consumption and destruction. Not much hope for our near future, right, Linus? "Well, we can still stop it!"

Kids4Climate: The Earth in 50 years

Technology has the power

In place of nature, technology will dominate our daily lives, Yann (12) believes. But for him, this is not discouraging, since we will have the most advanced technologies and lots of flying objects. This is how our planet will look in 50 years: a futuristic cityscape filled with revolutionary machines.

Kids4Climate: The Earth in 50 years

Huge carbon 'handprint'

Astrid (6) has a very abstract idea about Earth. It's a place where river flows, air flows and people are simultaneously affected by the same threat: a gigantic carbon "handprint." Astrid has heard about it at school: the bigger the "handprint," the worse the impact for us all.

Kids4Climate: The Earth in 50 years

Let’s try to survive

Our young artists don't always want to give a clear interpretation for their pieces. In this case, Miguel (10) provides us with two main options: The robot represents destructive climate change. Here, our destiny is quite clear. On the other hand, it may just mean that artificial intelligence will get out of control and become more powerful than humans. In any case, it's our time to act!

Kids4Climate: The Earth in 50 years

Tragedy on Earth

At 7, Judith gets quite serious when talking about the future, and is convinced we might all be dead by 2067 - pets included. In half a century, almost no one will have survived planetary destruction: and aliens will get the chance to take over. Just in case, Judith already prefers to save precious resources. No more new sheets of paper for drawing unless she's first used the other side.

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