One degree celsius might not sound like a big increase in temperature, but it’s the difference between life and death for thousands of people.
Earth has always had natural cycles of warming and cooling, but not like we’re seeing now. The top five hottest years on record are 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2010.
And rising temperatures doesn’t only mean it’s getting hotter. The Earth’s climate is complex — even a small increase in average global temperature means big changes, with lots of dangerous side effects.
Human beings are causing climate change, largely by burning fossil fuels.
Rising temperatures correlate almost exactly with the release of greenhouse gases.
Before the 18th century, when humans in the industrial west began to burn coal, oil and gas, our atmosphere typically contained about 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Those are the conditions “on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.”
Now, as the use of fossil fuels spreads through the world, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is skyrocketing — we’re now well over 400 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere.
At the same time, the rapid growth in demand for animal-based agriculture by wealthier countries has seen other greenhouse gasses like methane and nitrous oxide rapidly rise. The contribution of agriculture causes about 15% of global emissions. Burning fossil fuels remains by far the biggest single contributor to the problem, causing 57% of global emissions. This is compounded by the fact that carbon dioxide stays active in the atmosphere much longer than methane and other greenhouse gasses.
Fossil fuel companies are taking millions of years worth of carbon, once stored beneath the earth as fossil fuels, and releasing it into the atmosphere. In 2014, CO2 concentrations crossed 400 ppm in the atmosphere for the first time in at least 2.5 million years.
Keeping fossil fuels in the ground is the most important step we can take to prevent further climate change.
An overwhelming 97% of scientists agree that climate change is being caused by human greenhouse gas emissions. There is no meaningful debate about the basic science of climate change.
Scientists at the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City.
1981 Exxon internal memo acknowledging the role of CO2 in causing climate change.
The finding that more CO2 in the atmosphere will warm the climate dates back to the 1890s. Attacks on the credibility of climate science are perpetuated by vested interests, including the fossil fuel industry, which has pumped millions of dollars into creating uncertainty about our understanding of climate change.
The oil company Exxon knew about climate change’s impact in the 1970s, and found out that action would impact their bottom line. As a result, they joined an industry-wide attack on the truth, creating a false debate that prevented action for decades. Now we know that Exxon, and other companies like Shell, have been taking actions to protect their infrastructure from climate change for decades — while fighting action to protect the rest of us.
It’s also important to listen to indigenous, traditional and local knowledge. In many places of the world elders and community leaders are sharing their understandings of how ecosystems are changing.
If we pay attention to what scientists and frontline communities are telling us, instead of fossil fuel industry deceptions, the message is clear: Humans are causing the rapid onset of climate change, which is already bringing costly impacts across the world. The best way to stop it is by keeping fossil fuels in the ground.
One degree of warming has already resulted in devastating impacts across the planet.
Global grain yields have declined by 10% from heatwaves and floods connected to climate change, unleashing hunger and displacement. Over 1 million people living near coasts have been forced from their homes due to rising seas and stronger storms, and millions more are expected to flee in the coming years.
Climate change science has evolved rapidly in recent years and it is now possible for scientists to pinpoint the contribution that climate change is making to many extreme weather events or other impacts.
One of the clearest findings of climate science is that global warming amplifies the intensity, duration and frequency of heat waves, drought, and wildfires.
After walking for weeks to escape drought
in Somalia, a girl stands among graves at a refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. (Photo: Andy Hall/Oxfam)
Our planet’s atmosphere and oceans are heating up ten times faster than anytime in the last 65 million years. This has been particularly noticeable in the past twenty years, where the ten hottest years ever recorded have all occurred since 1998.
Doctors treat a man for sunstroke and severe dehydration in Bhopal Madhya Pradesh, India during the 2015 heat wave which killed over 2,300 people. (Photo: Sanjeev Gupta/EPA)
Even a small temperature increase has deadly consequences: since we started burning fossil fuels, the average global temperature has increased by 1 degree Celsius, which is causing a dramatic increase in the frequency of heat waves.
That heat has contributed to deadly heat waves, more severe droughts and extended the reach of wildfires. In 2015, India experienced its worst heatwave ever recorded, with the loss of over 2,300 lives. While heatwaves are an annual occurrence in India, global warming has meant recent heat waves are hotter and as a result more deadly.
Warming is increasing the severity of drought. A warmer atmosphere sucks more water from the soil, increasing the likelihood for drought conditions. Through 2015 and 2016, drought and rising temperatures left over 36 million people in Eastern and Southern Africa facing hunger. The drought was the worst in Ethiopia’s recent history.
A 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada burned 590,000 hectares, destroyed roughly 2400 buildings and homes, and caused over $9 billion in damages. (Photo: Jupm Studios)
Wildfires are also an indicator of our rapidly warming atmosphere. An extremely dry winter coupled with unseasonably hot weather fueled devastating wildfires across North America in 2016. These included the disastrous fires in Fort McMurray — which led to one of the biggest evacuations in the country's history and went on record as the most expensive disaster in Canadian history with losses expected to total $3.58 billion.
Ocean Warming + Acidification
While record-breaking warming is being felt on land, most of the extra heat energy being trapped in our atmosphere is being stored deep into our oceans causing rapid changes and the decline of key ecosystems.
Bleaching at Heron Island in February 2016, near the southern most point of the Great Barrier Reef. (Photo: Richard Vevers / The Ocean Agency)
Prior to the 1980s there were no signs of any global coral bleaching events for the past ten thousand years, and probably much longer. It’s only in the last 35 years that global coral reef bleaching has occurred. Since then nearly every part of the world with coral reefs has been going through extensive coral bleaching. From the Great Barrier Reef to the Andaman Islands of the Indian Ocean, what were once bright colorful coral reefs full of life have turned bleached white then murky brown as they’ve died and become covered in algae. (Read more about our Coral Reef Crime Scene campaign.)
As Laurie Raymundo, a marine scientist from Guam related:
“I consider myself to be fairly objective and logical about science. But sometimes that approach fails me. Today, for the first time in the 50 years I’ve been in the water, I cried for an hour, right into my mask, as I witnessed the extent to which our lovely Tumon Bay corals were bleaching and dying.”
As water heats up, it expands. This simple phenomena, alongside the influx of water into the oceans from melting ice in the polar regions and the world’s glaciers, is driving rapid sea level rise.
Dead vegetation caused by saltwater intrusion and drought on Ailuk Atoll in the Marshall Islands in 2013. (Photo: PACC)
It only takes a small amount of sea level rise to cause dramatic damage and change — as king tides and storm surges sweep further inland. In some islands, like Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, the increased sea level rise is leading to overtopping events — where the ocean washes across the island at high tide. When salt water mixes with fresh ground water, destroying the ability to grow important food crops and freshwater supplies.
The Fijian government is already underway relocating 64 villages due to the impacts of sea level rise, while a further 830 villages are deemed at high risk and may face relocation. The indigenous village of Shishmaref in Alaska has voted to relocate due to rising sea levels.
The current rate of sea level rise is around 3.4mm/year, but this rate is growing over time, on top of year-to-year ups and downs. At this point we cannot stop sea level rise, but if we act now to keep fossil fuels in the ground, we can limit the extent of sea level rise for centuries into the future.
If we keep fossil fuels in the ground and limit warming to less than 2°C, it can mean the difference between a sea level increase of 50cm and an increase of 10 metres or more. With 37% of the world’s population living near the coast, the stakes are high.
Extreme Storms + Flooding
Storms and extreme rainfall events have always happened, but with the added heat in the atmosphere and oceans due to greenhouse gas emissions, storms now occur with increasing accumulated energy and higher moisture loading.
Rescuers aid trapped residents in Nan'an, southeast China's Fujian Province, September 2016. (Photo: Xinhua)
Because of human-caused climate change, the storms, cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons we see today are bringing noticeably heavier rainfall, causing more flooding, blowing with stronger winds and causing bigger storm surges.
Residents who refused to be evacuated sit on makeshift boats during evacuation operations of the Villeneuve-Trillage suburb of Paris on June 3, 2016. (Photo: Christian Hartmann)
The unusually warm waters (attributable to global warming) in the Caribbean in September, 2016 lead to the incredibly rapid intensification of Hurricane Matthew, consistent with the trend of rapidly intensifying tropical hurricanes. In just 36 hours Hurricane Matthew went from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane, causing havoc in Haiti, Cuba, the Bahamas and the Southeastern United States as it progressed.
The cost of burning more fossil fuels is very real — it will make storms, hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones more deadly and costly. Keeping fossil fuels in the ground is the best way to protect people from untold destruction.
Sea Level Rise + Melting Ice
Due to warming of the oceans and atmosphere, the amount of ice on Earth is declining — from glaciers to the Arctic & Antarctic. This is driving sea level rise, reducing the earth’s ability to reflect heat energy back out to space, and endangering unique ecosystems.
Diagram of Arctic ice . (Photo: Christian Hartmann)
Since satellite records began 37 years ago, the Arctic’s sea ice has been in dramatic decline, losing on average 3.7% of its mass each decade. The entire Arctic region is undergoing drastic changes, threatening vital habitat for countless species (yes, including polar bears) and the livelihoods of many Indigenous communities.
The Antarctic ice sheet is also undergoing changes as ocean temperatures increase, albeit more slowly than the Arctic. As the world’s largest store of freshwater, Antarctica has the potential to contribute more than a meter of sea level rise by 2100 and more than 15 metres by 2500, if emissions continue unabated. Recent research shows that the Antarctic contribution to sea level rise is close to zero for up to 1.5 degrees Celsius warming, then jumps to at least 2 metres once we pass approximately 2 degrees Celsius.
The difference we can make now by keeping fossil fuels in the ground is astounding: if we act now, we can keep the Antarctic ice sheet largely intact. If we don't, Antarctic ice will begin an irreversible slide into the ocean, causing trillions of dollars of damage to people all over the world.
Glaciers are very sensitive to temperature change and as a result of climate change, glaciers around the world are in irreversible retreat. Glaciers provide an important year-round source of water to many towns and cities around the world.
“One glacier on Chacaltaya mountain, which once hosted the world’s highest ski resort, has already completely disappeared. And the two Tuni-Condoriri glaciers that provide water for El Alto and La Paz lost 39% of their area between 1983 and 2006 – at a rate of 0.24 sq km per year.”
The decline of glaciers in the Himalayas, Andes, Arctic, New Zealand Southern Alps and elsewhere pose significant costs and threats to people and wildlife who have historically relied on their year-round stability.
Because glaciers are so sensitive to small temperature changes, even if we stopped emissions now, many glaciers will still disappear. But action now to keep fossil fuels in the ground can still save many glaciers.
Shifting seasons, habitats & climatic zones
The warming of the atmosphere is changing the timing of seasons, the distribution of habitats and moving warmer climate zones toward the poles.
Female Aedes albopictus mosquito capable of spreading Zika virus. (Photo: James Gathany/CDC)
The spread of mosquito-borne diseases like Zika and dengue fever is increasing as tropical and subtropical climate zones move toward the poles, expanding the habitat zones of mosquitos. As the earth continues to warm, the spread of tropical diseases will expand.
The amount of habitat available for temperate and tundra ecosystems is declining as tropical and subtropical climate zones expand, pushing species like polar bears to toward extinction.
Seasons are changing and becoming more unpredictable, making it harder for farmers to know when to plant & harvest. Recent research has shown that summer conditions now arrive 10 days earlier in Europe than 40 years ago.
A note on extreme cold:
An unusually cold patch of weather or heavy snow often draws comment from climate deniers saying that climate change is not happening. But this is untrue:
Although it seems counter-intuitive, a warmer atmosphere causes heavier snowstorms. This is because hotter air holds more moisture, which is then released in heavier precipitation in the form of more intense rain or snow. As a result, more of a region’s precipitation is likely to fall in heavy storms, and less in light storms.
Climate change is already changing seasons, affecting habitats & shifting climatic zones, pushing species to extinction, and farmers to hardship. Keeping fossil fuels in the ground is the best way to protect important habitats and livelihoods.
5. We Can Fix It.
The basic facts of climate change are grim: 80% of fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground for us to stay below 2°C* of warming and fossil fuel companies aren’t going to do that without a fight.
Here’s the good news:
We know exactly what we have to do — keep fossil fuels in the ground and quickly transition to 100% renewable energy.
Renewable energy is getting cheaper and more popular every day. In fact, global carbon emissions have already started to slow due to the rapid growth of clean energy.
We’re not alone — the worldwide movement to stop climate change and resist the fossil fuel industry is growing stronger every day.
*Even if we do manage to keep 80% of fossil fuels in the ground, a world that’s 2°C warmer is going to be a much different, scarier place. We’re only at +1°C now, and we’re already seeing more storms, flooding, heatwaves, drought, and island nations at risk of going underwater. +2°C is going to mean a lot of human suffering, and tremendous damage to the planet.