The Meaning of Half a Degree: A New Way to Think about Climate Change

Julia Baum, a marine biologist at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, has been researching climate-threatened coral reefs for years. But recently she decided to make a change. “I’ve realized the best way I can help to save coral reefs is not to work on coral reefs,” she says. “It’s to work on the energy transition.” That’s because climate change is caused chiefly by the burning of fossil fuels, which now accounts for 86 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. And unless we rapidly transition to clean energy, all other efforts to save corals—or our warming planet—won’t matter.

This reality is one that all of the earth’s inhabitants are now grappling with: If we want to preserve the places we love, we have to focus on moving away from fossil fuels immediately. The latest United Nations climate report, released in February, made it clear that irreversible destruction can no longer be avoided. The question is no longer “How can we fix climate change?” It’s “How much irreversible planetary damage are we willing to accept in order to continue extracting and burning fossil fuels?”

Since the late 19th century, when, in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, humans started burning fossil fuels on a scale greater than ever before, the global average temperature has increased by about 1.1 degrees Celsius. Today, the desperate hope of climate scientists is that we prevent that number from rising to 1.5 degrees. Of course, some say that task is now impossible and that the best we can wish for is to limit warming to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Those two thresholds have come to define the discourse around climate change, and either would represent a stunning reversal of current trends.

When delegates met to confront the issue at last year’s climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, representatives convened from the world’s biggest polluting nations. Each had already agreed to curb emissions in pursuit of two objectives set out by the 2015 Paris Agreement: limiting warming to “well below” 2 degrees and “pursuing efforts” to reach 1.5 degrees. But some have argued that the Paris Agreement is flawed: Even though countries are required to submit plans to reduce emissions, there is no way of enforcing those pledges, and six years after Paris, we remain on a disastrous course. One recent study projected that, under current policies, the world is on track to warm by 2.7 degrees by 2100—a catastrophic scenario.

So, without the will to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, what comes next? Around the world, profound transformations are already under way. Ski slopes are bare. Storms are worsening. Regions are becoming inhospitable for human life. In one future, the world warms by 2 degrees or more and these trends continue to their catastrophic ends. In another, we pull the hand brake now and limit warming to 1.5 degrees. “People don’t realize that every tenth of a degree matters,” Baum explains. Here are some places where they matter the most.

Jacobabad, Pakistan

One of the world’s hottest cities simply can’t stand to get any hotter.

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