How much time do we have to save the planet?
...or are we past the point of no return? Gulp. On your marks, get set, read...
Remember when Madonna told us we only had four minutes to save the world? Well, 13 years after the song’s release – and sans Timbaland ad-libs – figuring all this out has become the most important question of our lives.
We know climate change is happening already, but how long until we can’t do anything besides crash and burn? Twelve years? Six years? Eighteen months? Past the point of no return?
You’ll get lots of answers to this question depending on where you look (or how old the resource is). The Climate Clock, a website powered by scientists, artists, educators and activists across the world, currently says that in order to have a two-thirds chance of staying under the critical threshold of 1.5°C warming, we must achieve near-zero emissions in less than seven years.
What we know for certain, and what the 2021 IPCC report has outlined, is that we’re fucked in pretty much all scenarios. “Nobody’s safe, and it’s getting worse faster. We must treat climate change as an immediate threat,” warned Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, at the most recent IPCC press conference.
The report has also uncovered something extremely worrying: the 1.5°C limit of a relatively “safe” temperature rise could well be reached by the 2030s, which is a whole decade earlier than was predicted just a few years ago.
But is there still time? Yes. If countries worldwide were to pursue the “very low emissions” scenario, one of five proposed by the IPCC, it could still be possible to reach the end of the century without going beyond the 1.5°C rise. However, the IPCC report reveals that the pace we’re going at now would most likely see the global surface temperature increase to almost 3°C. And though uncertainties remain in projecting the extent of climate change and temperature rises, at 3°C things start looking pretty disastrous.
How likely are we to make the best-case scenario? The Climate Action Tracker monitors pledges made by countries from the 2015 Paris Agreement. As of September 2021, it found that 110 countries (83 countries plus the EU’s 27) out of the 196 that signed the Paris Agreement have met the recent deadline for submitting new targets. Unfortunately, important players like Russia, Brazil, Australia and Mexico haven’t raised their ambitions since last year.
For those of us living in the Global North, it can also be easy to forget that the situation is already at its worst in many areas worldwide that are unable to drastically adapt to climate change. For many communities, especially indigenous groups, the worst-case climate change scenario has been happening for decades, as brutal histories of colonisation come head-to-head with pollution, habitat destruction, oil spills and gas pipelines, decimating local environments and lifestyles. So when we ask about how much time we have left, upon whose “time” are we really basing this question?
Maybe we need to reframe the question entirely. Though a tangible answer can give a lot of people hope that things can still be done to slow global warming, it can also stop us from acting urgently. So instead of asking, “how much time do we have to save the planet?”, perhaps a better question is: “What can we do to save the planet right now?”