This is the summer when, for many, climate change got real. The future looks fiery and dangerous. Hot on the heels of Trump, fake news and the parlous state of the Brexit negotiations, despair is in the air. Now a new scientific report makes the case that even fairly modest future carbon dioxide emissions could set off a cascade of catastrophe, with melting permafrost releasing methane to ratchet up global temperatures enough to drive much of the Amazon to die off, and so on in a chain reaction around the world that pushes Earth into a terrifying new hothouse state from which there is no return. Civilisation as we know it would surely not survive. How do we deal with such news?
As a research scientist in this field, I can give some nuance to the headlines. One common way of thinking about climate change is the lower the future carbon dioxide emissions, the less warming and the less havoc we will face as this century progresses. This is certainly true, but as the summer heatwave and the potential hothouse news remind us, the shifts in climate we will experience will not be smooth, gradual and linear changes. They may be fast, abrupt, and dangerous surprises may happen. However, an unstoppable globally enveloping cascade of catastrophe, while possible, is certainly not a probable outcome.