Climate Change – 20th and 21st centuries

Even the most skeptical of critics now admit that global warming is a fact of life, so their line has switched from ‘it isn’t actually happening’ to ‘it’s actually happening but it’s part of a natural cycle rather than manmade’. But few scientists now doubt that the earth’s atmosphere is warming as millions of tons of greenhouse gases – mainly carbon dioxide – are created annually by the relentless burning of fossil fuels and destruction of forests that help to neutralize harmful emissions.

While developed and developing nations alike acknowledge the potentially disastrous consequences of global warming, they can’t agree on remedial action. The two super-polluters – the USA and China – refuse to make any firm commitment to reduce emissions, illustrating the key reason why global warming remains such an intractable problem. Developed countries are unwilling to take the economic pain and reduced living standards that would stem from cutting back on existing levels of emission and restricting growth. Developing countries won’t slow economic growth and frustrate the entirely reasonable ambition of their people to share living standards enjoyed in the developed world. So nothing significant gets done.

The best projections suggest that – in the absence of drastic efforts to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases – the world’s average temperature will rise by at least 1°C to 6.5°C in the 21st century, with the probable rise towards the top of the range – or even beyond – as the process becomes self-sustaining and feeds off itself. The consequences will be catastrophic, with rapidly rising sea levels engulfing low-lying land, erratic and violent weather patterns, desertification of large areas and mass species extinctions.

The gloomiest sages ever foresee a very real threat to the continued existence of the species responsible for creating and failing to check global warming: Homo sapiens.

When: 20th and 21st centuries

Where: Global

Death toll: Incalculable. Countless natural disasters that have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives between them are said by many to be caused (at least in part) by global warming. While there is almost certainly some truth in these claims, it is impossible to prove that any particular natural disaster has been caused by, or even influenced by, global warming.

You should know: The major climate-change summit that took place in Denmark towards the end of 2009 was billed as the last serious opportunity to secure a binding international agreement to limit the emission of greenhouse gases before global warming started to run out of control. It ended in disarray with complete failure to secure any sort of meaningful deal.

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