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Climate change

Is human civilisation really going to end by 2050?

We speak to an expert in climate change to find out how fucked we truly are

Everyone knows that the planet is melting and that the human race is facing a genuine threat to its existence, but it could all be curtains as early as 2050, according to a piece of research that went viral this week.

The Breakthrough National Centre For Climate Restoration, a think tank in Melbourne, Australia, released a report suggesting that there was a “high likelihood of human civilisation coming to an end” within a 30 year timeframe. This is huge if true. “Even for 2°C of warming,” the report says, “more than a billion people may need to be relocated and in high-end scenarios, the scale of destruction is beyond our capacity to model.”

The think tank adds that action “akin in scale to the World War II emergency mobilisation” is necessary to prevent this collapse. 2050 is pretty close, and frankly lads, it’s looking really, really bad for us. To see just how bad, and whether or not this extremely worrying claim holds water, Dazed spoke to Joeri Rogelj, a lecturer in climate change and the environment at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, who counts Greta Thunberg among his Twitter followers. Basically, he’s the real deal.

Hi Joeri, there’s a meme doing the rounds that human civilisation will collapse by 2050, based on a piece of research. Is this prediction based on sound scientific practice?

Joeri Rogelj: I would consider what the authors did to be sound scientific practice, if you acknowledge that they are providing a sound internally consistent view on how a future under climate change could look like if some of the more dire impacts that cannot be excluded at the moment would materialise. They are not making a prediction of what will happen, but are providing us with a what-if view of the future.

How much do you buy into a 2050 prognosis?

Joeri Rogelj: The briefing paper and the research it uses describe how the world would look like if some of the bad surprises that might happen if global warming continues unchecked would materialise. These include much more warming than what we would expect from middle-of-the-road estimates based on past experience, and also severe impacts on our environment and our society. They clearly communicate this as a possible worst case scenario that shouldn’t be read as a prediction. Their conclusion is that we should urgently put in place measures, policies, and actions that hedge against this risk.

Do you trust its conclusions?

Joeri Rogelj: You can compare their message as someone describing how bad it would be if, through a combination of unfortunate events and irresponsible planning, a large city would at some point entirely burn down in flames. If someone provides me with such an example, and it draws logically from all the scientific evidence we have, I do trust that this is a possible worst case scenario, and one that we want to avoid by hedging against the risks we know and by planning for containment. I don’t consider the conclusions of this briefing to be the most plausible scenario – but it also doesn’t intend to be that.

What does this paper actually tell us?

Joeri Rogelj: It tells us that based on our current best scientific understanding we cannot exclude with high confidence that path we are currently on avoids some momentous impacts by 2050 – impacts that would be disastrous for some regions and will be a strong amplifier of suffering and instability globally. We know now that impacts by 2050 could be disastrous, even if their likelihood is small. However, our response to date has been a uninterested shoulder shrug and de facto inaction.

If you disagree, what would your prognosis on the human race be?

Joeri Rogelj: What countries have currently put on the table in terms of climate action pledges is largely insufficient to keep warming to safe levels. We already have warmed the Earth by 1°C and we are on track to warm it by another half degree over the next 2 decades, and this will continue to 3 or 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century relative to where we started at the start of the Industrial Revolution. This would make a lot of places a lot worse to live, and particularly for poor and vulnerable populations. Scientific studies show that even without assuming a worst-case scenario they would struggle to develop and escape poverty, hunger, and suffering if warming rises above 1.5°C.

What do you make of Trump’s recent comments regarding the US as having a ‘clean climate’?

Joeri Rogelj: This is the equivalent of Donald Trump standing knee-deep in an open sewer, waving his hair with a pink fan and bragging about the rose-scented quality of his little toes. It is ridiculous. To be sure, the overwhelmingly largest contribution to climate change are global greenhouse gases, of which carbon dioxide is the most important one. The US is far from being climate clean – quite the opposite actually. It is the second largest carbon dioxide emitter globally, only surpassed by China.

What would your advice be to the average person who wants to help?

Joeri Rogelj: Climate change is a systemic problem that will require societal solutions. However, as an average person we can definitely contribute to making this happen. Recently, we developed a list of nine things you can do as a person to tackle climate change. This list includes changes to our habits, like having healthier and less meat or dairy intensive diets, cutting back on flying or leaving the car at home in favour of the bike for short trips, or cutting back on waste.

Also protecting green spaces, saving energy by investing in better homes (which conveniently also cuts back on energy bills), and investing your savings wisely in environmentally responsible areas can help. Finally, however, we also identified that talking to your friends and families about the changes you make, and, most importantly, making your voice heard and speaking up to those in power that need to make decisions about our long-term future would be key actions that you as a concerned and responsible can take.