How bad will climate change get? A lot depends not on how we react, but how quickly.

These graphics from the World Resources Institute gives a sense of the dynamics at play.

These graphics from the World Resources Institute gives a sense of the dynamics at play.

These graphics from the World Resources Institute gives a sense of the dynamics at play.

These graphics from the World Resources Institute gives a sense of the dynamics at play.

2014-08-26

Co.Exist

4 Scenarios Show What Climate Change Will Do To The Earth, From Pretty Bad To Disaster

Climate change is going to do a lot of damage. How bad that damage will be is still under debate.

The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report left no doubt about the future of the world if we don't slow the rate at which we release heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. In a word, it's going to get bad.

But exactly how bad is still an open question, and a lot depends not only on how we react, but how quickly. The rate at which humans cut down on greenhouse gas emissions—if we do choose to cut them—will have a large bearing on how the world turns out by 2100, the forecasts reveal.

This graphic from the World Resources Institute gives a sense of the dynamics at play. It presents four "emissions pathways," ranging from the very optimistic to the highly pessimistic.

We Actually Do Something About Climate Change

The first "Low Emissions" scenario is for a 66% drop in greenhouse emissions by 2050 compared to 2010 levels. It's what we might call a soft landing, because under those conditions scientists believe we'll be relatively safe. The world would have warmed only by 2 degrees C over pre-industrial levels (the level set by various international agreements). Still, almost of the quarter of the world would suffer depleted groundwater supplies by 2080, and many more people will face extreme flooding, the WRI says. So, life wouldn't be peachy.

We Keep Doing What We're Doing

The "Medium Emissions" scenario sees increases in emissions until 2040 and the world exceeding its "carbon budget"—the level at which it should stay within the 2 degrees limit—by 2056. By 2100, the planet has warmed by 2.9 degrees, and economic productivity has fallen by 20%. By the 2080s, six times as many people are experiencing catastrophic flooding as the 1980s.

We Rev The Engines

The "High Emissions" scenario doesn't see emissions peaking until 2080, while global temperatures jump 3.7 degrees C by 2100. The carbon budget is exhausted in 2057. The impact on agricultural production is so heinous that adaption is no longer viable, the WRI predicts.

We Destroy The Planet

As if that's not bad enough, there's one last "Highest Emissions" scenario (they should have called it the Doomsday Scenario, really). It sees the carbon budget obliterated in 2045 and global temperatures increasing a whopping 4.8 degrees by century's end. Many animals have become extinct and farming in some places, like southern Brazil, has become impossible.

But won't we adapt to the new conditions, you might ask? Well, maybe. The scenarios here assume flat technology development, not the leaps forward in innovation that we can hope for. We could have drought-resistant crops and new ways of recycling and desalinating water, for instance, that could make these predictions less forceful.

The easier course, though, is to cut emissions. To have a fighting chance of coping with climate disorder, we have to cut greenhouse gases quickly, not just wait until it's convenient.

[Photo: Robert Rozbora via Shutterstock]

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5 Comments

  • Thanks Ben, for the likes of me I just don't understand how anyone cannot (still) believe that we have damaged this planet so much that it is questionable that we can repair, let alone recover and continue as normal, i.e. on this path at all...we are well beyond any 11th hour by now (one should see Leo di Caprio's film again) and the weather changes will be far much worse than any models will show and they will multiple and worsen...food and water will be the next crisis...and for those that still doubt and are sceptical, I say: please seek help!

  • Regardless of how true and accurate the estimates are, I think we should try our best and reduce the impact we have on the natural surroundings. If we will keep ignoring climate change related issues and keep living carelessly as the generations before us did, then we will end up in a rotten and run-down earth full of our own waste. In the end everyone has their own personal opinion on the climate but resource depletion and global pollution doesn't care about opinions.

  • While it's certainly true that global warming, if it's a real phenomenon and if the models are accurate, would have a damaging affect on the globe. However there are reasons to doubt that warming is occurring and that the models are accurately predicting future effects. Here's a recent article about how raw temperature data is possibly being incorrectly modified - http://www.thegwpf.org/the-heat-is-on-over-homogenised-temperature-records/ - to show a warming trend whereas the raw data is actually showing a cooling trend. This is an example that was held up in scientific peer review, and where the objections raised by those who modified the data were rejected. This is not an isolated case, and there's reasons to be concerned that NOAA and NASA data has been 'homogenized' using similar techniques and that also resulted in modifying trends from cooling to warming. From these I would assert that there's still scientific debate about the correctness of the underlying raw data.

  • How can condemning billions of innocent children to a climate crisis come so easy for you fear mongering "believers"?

    Is science also only 95% sure smoking will cause cancer?

    Until science "believes" as much as you remaining "believers" do and beyond their laughable 32 years of "could be" and their absurd; "95%" certainty that THE END IS NEAR, then it can't possibly be a crisis. Prove that science "believes" as much as you determined "believers" and lazy news editors do. Who's the neocon? Exaggeration and misguided concern is still fear mongering and makes neocons out of all of us in the history books.