At the time, 2010 was the hottest year on record tied with 2005, according to NASA. Now, we’ve reached the end of the decade and average global temperatures have risen every year since 2014. Meanwhile, a UN report published in November 2019 revealed that greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing. It’s clear that the progress needed hasn’t been made.
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“In the past 10 years, we’ve wasted so much time,” comments Corinne Le Quéré, professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia, adding that the goal of keeping global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (the target experts agree we need to meet to prevent disastrous consequences) is looking increasingly out of reach: “1.5°C is looking very difficult. Emissions need to go down to zero to tackle climate change and they’ve actually gone up almost 10 per cent; we’re not on the right trajectory.”
Students march in a strike and protest the inadequate progress to address climate change in Sydney on March 15, 2019.
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As the failure of the past decade to address the climate crisis has become apparent, millions have taken to the streets in 2019 to protest. The likes of Greta Thunberg have provided hope that we can tackle the issue with urgent action — but the Swedish activist has been candid about the lack of real progress made.
“There is no victory, because the only thing we want to see is real action,” said the 16-year-old during the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid in December. “So we have achieved a lot, but if you look at it from a certain point of view we have achieved nothing.”
The repeated warnings from scientists
Climate change is by no means a new discovery; scientists such as James Hansen, who gave evidence to the US Congress in 1988, have been warning about the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions for more than 30 years. Since then, there have been a number of significant studies highlighting the impact human activity has had on global temperature rises, including a 2014 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stating that “since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.”
“Every decade since we’ve understood that human emissions of greenhouse gases cause global warming has been a missed opportunity for action,” says Katharine Davis Reich, associate director of the UCLA Center for Climate Science. “The more time that passes, the more glaring the inadequacy of our collective response.”
Firefighters try to control a blaze in California on July 31, 2018.
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Le Quéré adds: “The scientific message and information has been repeated consistently and repeatedly for 30 years so now [going into] 2020, there is frustration. You think, ‘When are policymakers going to get it?’”
Many consider the 2018 IPCC report — which described “long-lasting or irreversible” effects of climate change — as a tipping point that has finally helped get the message through. In the study, experts warned we have to cut emissions by 45 per cent (compared to 2010 levels) by 2030 in order to limit warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. “There are already impacts from heat waves, extreme rainfall and floods, for example,” says Le Quéré. “It’s absolutely urgent that we act [now].”
The role of world leaders
To stand a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, we need decisive action from world leaders. It took until 2015 for the first major global climate commitment to come about, in the form of the Paris Agreement, which was signed by 195 countries and has a long-term goal of limiting warming to “well below” 2°C. But the years leading up to the landmark deal were a missed opportunity; there was a previously failed attempt to reach an agreement in Copenhagen in 2009.
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Despite the Paris accord, most countries are currently not on track to reach their goals; even if they were to meet their targets, a 2017 UN report found this would still lead to a 3.2°C rise by 2100. Donald Trump’s decision to pull out the US — the world’s second largest emitter — from the agreement was another major blow. The collective inaction by world leaders over the past decade was underlined by the COP25 Climate Change Conference in Madrid in December, where delegates failed to reach an agreement over increasing their climate ambitions.
Antarctica, Elephant Island, Point Wild, Chinstrap Penguin Colony Buried Under Snow as the climate crisis takes effect.
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Why have politicians been so slow to act? “Scientists can talk with policymakers until they are blue in the face, but the truth is that policymakers don’t act without pressure from their constituents,” Reich says. “If we citizens are not exercising our political power through our votes, through calls and messages to our representatives, and other direct and indirect actions, we’re not going to get the change we need.”
The Greta Thunberg effect
The world’s failure to act upon scientists’ warnings was what spurred Thunberg, then 15, to begin striking for the climate in August 2018. “Once you fully understand the climate crisis, you can’t un-understand it. You have to do something,” she told Vogue in July. “I thought: ‘Why isn’t anything happening? Why isn’t anyone doing anything?’’”
Thunberg’s lone strikes outside Swedish parliament quickly turned into the global school strike movement, known as Fridays For Future, which has seen 1.6m young people in more than 100 countries protesting globally. Meanwhile, the teenager has met politicians all around the world, spoken at UN climate conferences in 2018 and 2019, as well as delivering a searing speech to congress in September 2019, after sailing across the Atlantic.
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Combined with the work of other campaign groups such as Extinction Rebellion — which now has an estimated 485 affiliate groups worldwide — Thunberg’s impact has been phenomenal. “It’s amazing what’s been achieved by Greta and other child activists around the world,” says Sara Arnold, a member of Extinction Rebellion and founder of fashion rental company Higher Studio. “If there’s one shining light at the end of the decade, it’s that the failure of politicians means activists have come together in a really strong way.”
The need for urgent action in 2020
Although the past 10 years have been a missed opportunity when it comes to tackling the climate crisis, it’s more important than ever that the world takes action now. “If we’re going to meet that trajectory of carbon emissions decreasing, it needs to start decreasing in 2020, otherwise it’s too late,” says Arnold. “It’s really now or never.”
Cracks and crevices are seen in the face of the Perito Moreno glacier, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, which are the largest expanse of ice in the Southern Hemisphere outside of Antarctica. According to NASA, they melting away at some of the highest rates on the planet as a result of Global Warming.
© David Silverman/Getty Images
This requires politicians to take ambitious action, and legislate for polluting industries to do the same. “The action needs to be at the right scale, and that requires a lot of leadership by governments,” Le Quéré comments. “Governments can help the industry move away from [fossil fuels]. If we’re going to move from the petrol car to the electric car, then we really have to prepare the markets.”
Some effects of the climate crisis will be irreversible. But that’s why we need to learn from what’s happened in the 2010s. “It’s too late to preserve the state of the climate that we used to know,” Reich adds. “Our present choice is, how bad do we want it to get? If we want to level off the changes and keep them to something we can adapt to, then we have to take serious action as soon as possible. I’m very hopeful that we as a species will listen to our kids and act to protect their future.”
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