Originally published: https://www.theguardian.com/world/article/2024/may/09/first-edition-climate-change-survey

In today’s newsletter: The Guardian’s Damian Carrington surveyed hundreds of experts on their hopes and fears for the planet – here’s what they had to say

09 May 2024 | The Guardian, Nimo Omer

Good morning.

It is a cliche at this point, but the saying that every disaster movie starts with a scientist being ignored feels more painfully accurate with every passing day.

There is no shortage of scientific studies warning the world of the consequences of the climate crisis, and how it will accelerate if the situation does not change immediately. And yet, action is slow. Despite the ever-growing mass of evidence, we continue to be the frog in a pot of slowly boiling water.

In yet another example of the world’s scientists trying to raise the alarm, Guardian environment editor Damian Carrington asked hundreds of them about their thoughts on the future of the planet – and their predictions are predictably harrowing. Many expect global warming to hit 2.5C above preindustrial levels, way above internationally agreed targets. If adequate action is not taken, they warn that the world is heading towards a “semi-dystopian” future.

For today’s newsletter I spoke with Damian about why he conducted this survey and what the findings tell us about the future. That’s right after the headlines.

In depth: ‘1.5C is a political game – we were never going to reach this target’

People turn out to watch the sunrise at Cullercoats Bay, North Tyneside, on a 40C day in the UK
People turn out to watch the sunrise at Cullercoats Bay, North Tyneside, on a 40C day in the UK. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

For almost a decade, 1.5C has been a key criterion in discussions about the climate crisis. In 2015, 195 countries pledged to “pursue efforts” to keep global warming below the 1.5C threshold as part of the Paris agreement. Politicians and diplomats roll out this number at any given opportunity, but over the past year Damian noticed an increasing discrepancy between what is being said at climate negotiations, which largely still tout this as an achievable international target, and what scientists believe is likely to happen. “Scientists were increasingly saying to me, ‘1.5C is never going to happen, it’s too late’,” Damian says. So he decided to find out just how many scientists agree the target is no longer viable.

Frustration and despair

Damian wrote to every contactable lead author or review editor of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports since 2018 – all 843 of them – and 380 replied. Their expertise ranged from political science to the economy, physics, climatology, energy, and agriculture, among many other fields. The IPCC is an authoritative body, approved by all governments to provide reports and recommendations on the climate crisis.

The responses to Damian’s survey confirmed his hunch: only 6% of respondents thought the internationally agreed 1.5C limit would be met; 80% thought that temperatures would rise at least 2.5C above pre industrial levels; half of respondents anticipated that it would rise to over 3C. One scientist, Jonathan Cullen at the University of Cambridge, simply said to Damian: “1.5C is a political game – we were never going to reach this target.”

For context, human-induced climate change has resulted in an average rise in warming of 1.2C above preindustrial levels over the last four years, which has already led to record-breaking heatwaves, floods, wildfires and other extreme weather events. “It’s possible, in some ways, to adapt and prepare to protect people’s lives and livelihoods from some of these things,” says Damian. “But another shocking thing that came out of this survey was that many of the experts think we are wildly unprepared.”

An unexpected part of the responses to the survey was the level of personal anguish scientists say they have experienced, with many describing a profound sense of hopelessness and frustration at the lack of urgency given to the growing crisis. Said one: “What the fuck do we have to do to tell people how serious this is?”

What does more than 1.5C heating look like?

Icebergs at Disko Bay, Ilulissat, Greenland
Icebergs at Disko Bay, Ilulissat, Greenland. Photograph: Hollandse Hoogte/REX/Shutterstock

Climate change is not a cliff-edge crisis – every fraction of a degree that the world warms above 1.5C, the worse the impact will be on the planet, its wildlife and human beings. The inverse is also true, so defeatism is not an option, scientists say.

A 2C rise, the upper limit target for the signatories of the Paris agreement, will lead to even more frequent and more extreme weather events, as well as permanent mass death of coral reefs and the “extensive, long-term [and] essentially irreversible” loss of many of the Earth’s ice sheets and glaciers. This, in turn, would potentially lead to irreversible sea level rise. There would also be huge biodiversity loss. Many experts say that 2C is too high of a target for these reasons. Anything over 2.5C is a “really catastrophic” scenario, Damian says.

The difference between 1.5C and 3C is stark: the annual likelihood of a heatwave in England is roughly 65% at 1.5C – at 3C, that number shoots up to 90%. Hotter air contains more water vapour so there will be more flooding around the world. The Amazon rainforest would diminish rapidly during dry seasons, a quarter of the world’s population could be exposed to extreme drought, and ice caps could collapse leading to uncontrollable sea level rise – Climate Central estimates that 275 million people live in areas that will be flooded at 3C of warming. “Megacities, like Shanghai or São Paulo are going to be below sea level, which will lead to more forced migration,” Damian says. “The picture that was painted by the scientists I spoke to was one of famines, conflicts and governments unable to cope with the climate disasters that affect their countries as real possibilities.

No time for defeatism

All of this is not to say that experts are advocates of nihilism. Ultimately, systemic change is needed to stop the worst of the climate crisis – but in the meantime the other way of forcing change is through the ballot box, scientists say. For those who can vote, putting their support behind green candidates, especially during a time when other crises have pushed the climate emergency down the political agenda, is one way of making world leaders listen. The more optimistic experts told Damian that making the case clearly that climate-positive changes will make everyone’s quality of life better is vital. “Climate change is a slow-motion disaster – it happens bit by bit and that’s one of the reasons it’s difficult to deal with,” says Damian. “But it doesn’t mean that we can wait.”

For more from Damian on this story, sign up here to receive our environment newsletter Down to Earth tomorrow – and then every following Thursday