This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.
Author: David King, Founder and Chair, Center for Climate Repair at Cambridge, University of Cambridge
- Arctic changes are at or beyond a tipping point due to global warming.
- The Arctic links into global weather systems in many ways.
- A manageable future for humanity needs urgent coordinated interventions, based on reducing and removing GHGs, and repairing the Arctic.
Hurtling towards deeper climate shifts, unless we act now there is little chance of a manageable future for humanity. The possibility of maintaining an average global temperature rise below 1.5°C, and the implied manageability that brings, is increasingly difficult.
Already at 1.3°, the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are increasing, not falling. All models keeping to the 1.5° limit assume huge immediate behavior change and emission slowdowns. To date, these assumptions are demonstrably wrong.
Naming a 1.5° target wrongly suggests that this offers a manageable future. Today we see 50°C in India and Pakistan, which is only made a hundred times more likely by global warming. The human body is unable to survive such heat, farm workers require cool spaces meaning their work becomes impossible, food shortages occur as crops cannot survive, and demand for air conditioning brings power outages. This is just today’s reality – it is steeply worse for each extra 0.1°C.
Today’s reality, tomorrow’s catastrophe
The economic impacts that follow every climate event make lives unsustainable. Failed farmers move to cities looking for economic opportunities, informal settlements without infrastructure become larger and more vulnerable, and real people struggled to get a footing as the world changes around them. For many, the question becomes how to reverse the world from the catastrophes already faced rather than trying to ensure things get only a limited amount worse.
I could speak equally of floods in Germany or China, wildfires in California, storms in the Philippines or Florida, heat waves in British Columbia or unprecedented cold snaps in Texas – all of which happened in the last few months. They vary in type, duration, and location, but they share two things—they are related to climate change, and they cause ordinary people life-changing misery. Each weather phenomenon causes deaths, suffering, economic loss, and setbacks and all are many times more likely because of current levels of global heating. Such events only become more common and severe with each 0.1°C rise.
What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?
Climate change poses an urgent threat demanding decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts to floods to rising seas. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report continues to rank these environmental threats at the top of the list.
To limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policy-makers, and civil society advance comprehensive near- and long-term climate actions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
The World Economic Forum’s Climate Initiative supports the scaling and acceleration of global climate action through public and private-sector collaboration. The initiative works across several workstreams to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious solutions.
This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global network of business leaders from various industries developing cost-effective solutions to transitioning to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. CEOs use their position and influence with policy-makers and corporate partners to accelerate the transition and realize the economic benefits of delivering a safer climate.
Contact us to get involved.
Current ground zero
Urgent changes are also happening in the Arctic. It is a critical part of the global warming trend, and the annual temperature rise there is now four times faster than the global average.
As the Arctic temperature rises, sea-ice thins and melts – revealing larger areas of blue ocean to the summer sun. Where ice reflects heat away, the blue seas absorb the sun’s energy, accelerating local heating effects. Every winter, the sea is covered again in ice. However, the thickness is now insufficient and rapidly melts in the summer. As the area of exposed ocean increases, the absorption of heat accelerates – speeding and stretching the spread of ice-melt.
What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic
The Arctic links into global weather systems in surprising ways. The local, rapid summer temperature rise distorts the high-altitude polar jet stream, shifting temperature and weather patterns around the globe.
Extreme distortions of the jet stream allow cold weather to move south, and paradoxically, in the same distortion pattern, hot weather drifts uncharacteristically north. So Arctic changes speed up global warming, drive sea level rise in the mid to longer term, and directly cause many extreme floods, fires and heat waves around the globe.
Arctic changes are at or beyond a tipping point. Even if average global temperature rises at 1.5°C, the Arctic summer sea ice will not recover. Thus, the Arctic region will continue to drive more heating, sea-level rise, and extreme weather events.
Reduce, Remove, Repair
A manageable future for humanity needs several coordinated interventions. The 1.5°C limit demands rapid emissions reductions and removing excess GHGs from the atmosphere, shifting us gradually back towards pre-industrial levels. We must repair the Arctic to dampen chaotic global weather events, acceleration of heating, and sea-level rise. This ‘Reduce, Remove, Repair’ approach is known as ‘the 3Rs’, coined by CCAG.
Leading with climate repair
The relentless self-accelerating pattern of ice-melt, arctic heating, and polar jet-stream distortion has kicked off weather patterns that cause havoc around the world. Worryingly, there appears to be no possibility of the system correcting itself. Man-made emissions started this sequence of events, but emissions reductions will not interrupt the feedback loop of melting and heating. That’s why, in addition to toreduction and removal of GHGs, several steps are needed to fix the Arctic in order for the global pressure it exerts to be calmed.
The idea of deflecting sunlight away to cool the Arctic has often been discussed. Extreme schemes propose mirrors-in-space, sooty flakes, or aerosols in the stratosphere. A simpler possibility is increasing the quantity and whiteness of cloud cover over the Arctic, so sunlight is reflected away, reducing ice-melt. Gradually, the ice would thicken, and ‘repair’ of the Arctic would begin.
What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?
Our ocean covers 70% of the world’s surface and accounts for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can’t have a healthy future without a healthy ocean – but it’s more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.
Tackling the grave threats to our ocean means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.
The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a program with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.
Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.
Is your organization interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.
Methods that mimic nature are also potential options for repair. There is scope for small pumps, afloat at sea, powered by sunlight and waves to pump salty spray into the air. By natural processes, this creates bright white clouds with a sufficient cooling effect to restore summer ice. Such examples are small-scale but expandable and managed through local communities – bringing governance and economic opportunity right down to local and indigenous community level.
A manageable future starts with Arctic repair – but it is just one part of a bigger strategy. We must reduce emissions, remove excess GHGs from the atmosphere, and repair parts of our climate – and we must do it now.