A ‘new state’ for the planet will jeopardise human life

Last year was 0.68C warmer than average, meaning it was over half a degree warmer than it should have been. It was also 0.04C warmer than the previous record-setting years of 2005 and 2010.

The data, released by Nasa on Friday – and supported by similar data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States – showed that the last 38 years were warmer than the average for what they should have been.

Nasa said that this means nobody born after 1975 has experienced a colder than average year in their lives.

While the increase seemed small, it reinforced the trend of continually increasing temperatures.

Nasa said that the incremental changes would gather momentum, and also a small change in one system was enough to have a profound effect. This was because life systems were connected in complicated ecosystems, so if one changed at a rapid rate it would jeapordise others.

Gavin Schmidt, director of Nasa’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, said at the release, “We expect that heat records will continue to get broken – not everywhere and not every year – but increasingly, and that does not bode well for a civilisation that is continuing to add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere at an increasing rate.”

The record-setting 2014 rise in temperatures happened in a year that should have been cooler than average, said Schmidt. 

Unlike 1998 – another record year – there was no El Nino in the Pacific Ocean, and solar activity was not pervasive. These two factors normally drive hot years, he said.

Record levels of carbon
Last year the average level of carbon in the atmosphere passed 400 parts per million. Before the Industrial Revolution this indicator of greenhouse gases was at 250 parts per million.

Global climate change negotiations are aimed at ensuring these levels do not pass 450 parts per million.

But activists – such as groups like 350.org – say that levels need to be brought down to 350 parts per million if life on earth is to continue the way that it does now.

In representations to the UN last year, several of these organisations said that without this, climate change would be “catastrophic”.

Small island states, such as Kiribati, were already vanishing below rising sea levels. These were rising thanks to melting ice caps, and warm ocean water expanding. 

The government of Kiribati is already buying land in nearby Fiji and has started relocating people away from the rising sea.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN body tasked with collating climate change science, agrees.

In its mammoth report last year, it said that climate change was happening and thatthere was a “95% certainty” that humans were driving most of the change.

If greenhouse gas concentrations were not reigned in, the panel warned that the impact of climate change would be “severe, pervasive and irreversible”.

Any average global increase above 2C this century would be catastrophic. The current trajectory will see emissions push temperature increases beyond 4C this century, it said.

The increasing levels of carbon dioxide contribute to the planets greenhouse effect. (YouTube)

Life support systems pushed past safe levels
Last week research was published in the peer-reviewed journals Science and Anthropocene Review, showing that four of the nine “life support processes”, which allow life to exist, were being pushed beyond their capacity to adapt. 

These were losses of biospheric integrity; land system change; rapid climate change; and the damage caused from high levels of phosphorous and nitrogen flowing into oceans.

Three of the other indicators had not yet been quantified, and the others were approaching dangerous levels.

The researchers said that the rate of environmental change in the last 60 years was greater than at any time in the last 10 000 years.A major indicator of this was that species were becoming extinct at 100 times the normal rate for previous periods, they said.

This was creating a “new state” for the planet, which was becoming increasingly less hospitable to human life.

With global average temperatures expected to go beyond 4C this century, the researchers said it will be hard for species to survive.

Large mammals with constant body temperatures, such as humans, are unable to evolve quickly enough to survive increasing temperatures and collapsing environmental systems, they said.

Insects would be the only class of life that were able to adapt quick enough.

This age of climate changehas become known as the anthropocene: the age where humans are the main driver of climate and environmental changes.

Local warming drives severe weather 
Average temperature increases for South Africa have not yet been published. But previous data have shown that the country is, on average, 0.7C hotter.

Predictions by the environment department are that temperature increases will create unpredictable weather – such as the recent droughts and hail in different areas.

The general trend will be for the west of the country to get much drier, with the east getting wetter.But that rain will come in the form of shorter and more violent rain spells.

This will radically alter crop growing patterns, and the potential for harvesting.

The department’s predictions show that the southern Free State could become the new wine growing region of South Africa, with the Western Cape becoming too dry.

To stave this off, South Africa has joined the African grouping of countries at the global climate change negotiations to demand that carbon concentrations in the atmosphere be kept below 400 parts per million.

They say that an average increase of more than 1.5C will leave Sub-Saharan Africa unable to adapt to climate change.

An agreement is supposed to be signed when governments meet at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 21 in Paris at the end of this year.

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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