Jhe publication of Bill McGuire’s latest book, greenhouse soil, couldn’t be more timely. Appearing in stores this week, it will be walked by sweltering customers who have just endured record high temperatures across the UK and are now facing the prospect of weeks of drought to add to their discomfort.
And that’s just the beginning, insists McGuire, who is Emeritus Professor of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College London. As he makes clear in his uncompromising description of the coming climate catastrophe, we have – for too long – ignored explicit warnings that rising carbon emissions are dangerously warming the Earth. We will now pay the price for our complacency in the form of storms, floods, droughts and heat waves that will easily exceed current extremes.
The crucial point, he argues, is that there is no longer any chance that we will avoid a perilous and pervasive climate crisis. We have passed the point of no return and can look forward to a future in which deadly heat waves and temperatures above 50 C (120 F) are common in the tropics; where summers in temperate latitudes will be invariably hot and where our oceans are destined to become warm and acidic. “A child born in 2020 will face a much more hostile world than their grandparents,” insists McGuire.
In this regard, the volcanologist, who was also a member of the British government’s natural hazards task force, takes an extreme position. Most other climate experts still argue that we have time, but not much, left to achieve meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. A rapid net-zero transition and halting global warming are still within reach, they say.
These claims are denied by McGuire. “I know a lot of people working in climate science who say one thing in public but a very different thing in private. In all confidence, they are all much more afraid of the future we face, but they won’t admit it in public. I call it climate appeasement and I believe it only makes things worse. The world needs to know how bad things are going to get before we can hope to start tackling the crisis. »
McGuire finished writing greenhouse soil at the end of 2021. It includes many of the record high temperatures that had just plagued the planet, including the extremes that had hit the UK. A few months after completing his manuscript, and as publication approached, he found that many of those records had already been broken. “That’s the problem with writing a book about climate breakdown,” McGuire says. “By the time it is published, it is already obsolete. That’s how things move fast. »
Among the records broken during the book edition was the news that a temperature of 40.3C was reached in the east of England on July 19, the highest on record in the UK. (The country’s previous hottest temperature, 38.7C, was in Cambridge in 2019.)
In addition, London firefighters had to tackle blazes in the capital, with a blaze destroying 16 homes in Wennington, east London. Crews had to fight to save the local fire station itself. “Who would have thought that a village on the outskirts of London would be nearly wiped out by wildfires in 2022,” says McGuire. “If this country needs a wake-up call, this is it.”
Wildfires of unprecedented intensity and ferocity have also swept through Europe, North America and Australia this year, while record rainfall in the Midwest has caused devastating flooding in the park. Yellowstone National Park. “And as we head into 2022, it’s already a different world out there,” he adds. “Soon he will be unrecognizable to all of us.”
These changes underscore one of the most surprising aspects of climate breakdown: the rate at which the increase in global average temperature is translating into extreme weather events.
“Just look at what’s already happening in a world that’s only warmed a little over a degree,” McGuire says. “It turns out that the climate is getting worse much faster than predicted by early climate models. It’s something we didn’t expect. »
Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when humanity began emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, global temperatures have risen by just over 1°C. At the Cop26 climate meeting in Glasgow last year, it was agreed that every effort should be made to try to limit this increase to 1.5°C, although to achieve such a target it was calculated that global carbon emissions will need to be reduced by 45% by 2030.
“In the real world, that’s not going to happen,” McGuire says. “Instead, we are on track for an almost 14% increase in emissions by that date – which will almost certainly see us breaking the 1.5C guardrail in less than a decade.”
And we should have no doubts about the consequences. Anything above 1.5°C will see a world plagued by intense summer heat, extreme drought, devastating floods, reduced crop yields, rapidly melting ice caps and soaring global warming. sea level. A rise of 2C and above will seriously threaten the stability of global society, McGuire argues. It should also be noted that according to the most promising estimates of the emission reduction pledges made at COP26, the world is on the verge of warming between 2.4C and 3C.
From this perspective, it is clear that there is little we can do to avoid the coming climate collapse. Instead, we need to adjust to the hothouse world ahead of us and start taking action to try to keep a grim situation from getting even worse, McGuire says.
Certainly, as things stand, Britain – although relatively well placed to counter the worst effects of the coming climate crisis – faces big headaches. Heat waves will become more frequent, get hotter, and last longer. Many of Britain’s modern, tiny and poorly insulated homes will become heat traps, responsible for thousands of deaths every summer by 2050.
“Despite repeated warnings, hundreds of thousands of these inappropriate homes continue to be built every year,” McGuire adds.
As for the reason for the world’s tragically late response, McGuire blames a “conspiracy of ignorance, inertia, bad governance, obfuscation and lies by climate change deniers that has ensured that we were sleepwalking within half a degree of the dangerous 1.5 C climate change guardrail. Soon, barring some kind of miracle, we’ll be crashing into it.
The future is off limits from this point of view, although McGuire points out that if carbon emissions can be reduced significantly in the near future, and if we start to adapt to a much warmer world today, a future really calamitous and unsustainable can be avoided. The days ahead will be darker, but not disastrous. We may not be able to avoid climate breakdown, but we can avoid further installments that appear to be a climatic cataclysm severe enough to threaten the very survival of human civilization.
“It’s a call to arms,” he said. “So if you feel like sticking to a highway or blocking an oil refinery, do it. Drive an electric car or, even better, use public transport, walk or cycle. Switch to a green energy tariff; eat less meat. Stop stealing; put pressure on your elected officials both locally and nationally; and use your vote wisely to power a government that leads by example on the climate emergency.
Greenhouse Land: Resident’s Guide by Bill McGuire is published by Icon Books, £9.99
Sting in the tail
Five unexpected threats posed by pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere
under our feet As vast, thick sheets of ice disappear from high mountains and the poles, rocky crusts that had previously been compressed begin to rebound, threatening to trigger earthquakes and tsunamis. “We are well on the way to bequeathing to our children and their children not only a much warmer world, but also a more geologically restless world,” says Bill McGuire.
New Battlegrounds As crops burn and hunger spreads, communities come into conflict and the election of populist leaders – who will promise the Earth to their people – is likely to become commonplace. Most worrying are tensions over dwindling water supplies that are rising between India, Pakistan and China, all possessors of atomic weapons. “The last thing we need is a hot water war between two of the world’s nuclear powers,” observes McGuire.
Methane bombs Produced by wetlands, livestock and termites, methane is 86 times more potent at warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, but thankfully it stays around much shorter. The problem is that much of the planet’s methane is trapped in layers of Arctic permafrost. As these melt, more methane will be released and our world will get even hotter.
Lose the Gulf Stream As the ice caps melt, cold water from the Arctic threatens to block or divert the Gulf Stream, which carries a prodigious amount of heat from the tropics to the seas around Europe. Signs now suggest the Gulf Stream is already weakening and could come to a complete halt before the end of the century, triggering powerful winter storms over Europe.
Calorie Crunch Four-fifths of all calories consumed worldwide come from just 10 crops, including wheat, corn and rice. Many of these staple foods won’t grow well under the higher temperatures that will soon become the norm, indicating a massive reduction in food availability that will have a catastrophic impact across the planet, McGuire says.