An existential threat to all life on Earth

A banner held during Extinction Rebellion in London. Three of the 12 years UN experts gave then have elapsed.

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report. The findings are clear: even 1.5ºC of global warming would be far worse than previously predicted.

Any more warming could spell the end of our planet’s life support systems.

Tipping points could be reached.

The very liveability of our planet is at stake.

We need to cut down greenhouse gas emissions immediately, reaching net-zero by 2050 at the very latest. This means absolutely no emissions. All fossil fuels must be left in the ground, deforestation must turn into reforestation and our extravagant consumption of meat and animal products must halt immediately.

This goal is looking harder and harder to achieve, but it must be done if we don’t want to go back to the poverty, insecurity, starvation, disease and suffering of the dark ages.

A climate change strike in Nuremberg, Germany on 20 September 2019. Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

We often imagine climate change as being a problem in the distant future, or at least beyond our lifespans, making it irrelevant to us. However, this is not only selfish but outright false. The IPCC’s 2018 report predicted that if current trends continue, warming could reach 1.5ºC worldwide as soon as 2030.

Here in Hong Kong, you may not feel a big difference when the temperature spikes by this much. But global warming affects certain regions of the world much worse than others. In the Arctic, for example, the temperature change is currently two to three times greater than the global average.

This is critical.

Ice sheets here cool the Earth by reflecting sunlight, but they are melting into water, which instead absorbs heat. Decaying permafrost releases huge amounts of methane, an insulator gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Arctic forests lock in masses of carbon dioxide, but they are burning. These are nature’s climate stabilisers, and their destruction means unrelenting environmental instability which will cause ecological calamities.

Diagram highlighting the sensitivity of the biosphere. (Source: The University of Edinburgh)

Dramatic, immediate changes are needed to avert the climate crisis.

The most important one is the eradication of fossil fuel burning, but it’s generally difficult for civilians like me in Hong Kong or other places with autocratic political systems to make an immediate and meaningful effort to transition to clean energy. We don’t own the power plants and we can’t install solar panels on the ceilings of our flats. We could try pressuring our governments into investing in nuclear, wind, hydro and solar energy, but it’s dubious whether undemocratically elected and therefore unaccountable politicians care about the will of the people, especially considering the disqualification of 12 of the most popular opposition candidates from running in the September general election here and the purging of duly elected members of the legislature.

Fortunately, we can change what we eat.

I don’t mean only eating grass, I mean cutting down on animal product consumption. Animal products are foods which come from animals, for example, meat, milk, eggs, cheese and honey.

The UN has labelled animal products as the world’s most urgent problem, adding that there is literally no way to keep global warming below the incredibly precarious limit of 2ºC without virtually eliminating their consumption. Animal products were previously luxury items, but they’re now staples, and they account for around 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions. That’s as much as all cars, trucks, aeroplanes, ships, buses and trains combined.

Granted, we don’t have to become vegan yet. We just need to replace animal products with plant-based alternatives such as Impossible or Beyond whenever possible. Promising new technologies are being developed, which could enable the production of lab meat. But for now, instead of drinking bubble milk tea, you could try out non-milk variants like oolong or green tea. In my experience, they’re just as addictive.

In less than three years, half of the Great Barrier Reef was bleached to death by climate change. (Image source: The Australian Government)

Seemingly minuscule amounts of warming cause massive destruction.

We must immediately begin to drive down emissions. The most important ways to do this include reducing our animal product consumption, wasting less, taking public transport, petitioning governments around the world and casting aside politicians who reject science, support the fossil fuel and animal product industries and engage in ecocide, such as former US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

The environment is much more sensitive to temperature changes than our bodies are. Slight imbalances in our climate will result in cycles of death which will only stop with a sixth mass extinction, and the cause: you and me.