Climate Change: A Sisyphean Task?

By Toryn Whitehead

Climate change is a diverse problem full of deep uncertainty. Freak weather events will become more frequent and severe, resulting in immense human suffering and the ecological genocide of our planet.

In an effort to combat this threat, the Paris Agreement was signed in 2016. Every nation on earth committed to carbon targets which if they are met, will prevent us from exceeding a 1.5 °C warming above pre-industrial levels. This represented a turning point in the battle to tackle climate change, this was a moment for optimism. Yet four years later and it feels like very little has changed. Perhaps like the Greek folk figure Sisyphus, who was sentenced for eternity to push a boulder up a hill and watch it roll back down, we are destined to struggle.

Figure 1. Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill.

The USA and China account for almost 43% of our global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and play a significant role in financing fossil fuel development around the world. On the 22nd September 2020, President Xi Jinping announced to the UN General Assembly that China will aim to hit peak emissions before 2030 and for carbon neutrality by 2060. Although this announcement has been widely viewed as a significant step, it will be too little too late. A week prior to this announcement whilst visiting fire-ravaged California Donald Trump said “I don’t think science knows” and suggested that temperatures will “start getting cooler”. This rhetoric continues to spread doubt and confusion, in a moment where unprecedented action is needed. But what does all this mean? What are GHGs, how do they cause climate change and why should we care?

What is climate change?

Climate change is the warming of our planet as a result of the greenhouse effect. Although there are natural fluctuations in the Earth’s climate, the global warming we are experiencing can be attributed to human activity. Notably, our dependence on fossil fuels.

Greenhouse gases trap the sun’s rays in our atmosphere which results in the warming of our planet. The most common GHGs include carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides and methane. To compare the warming effects of these gases, we can look at their global warming potential (GWP). The larger the GWP of a gas, the more it warms the planet compared to CO2 over a given time period. The GWP of carbon dioxide is 1, methane is 28 and nitrous oxide is 265 for a 100 year time period. Therefore, since methane and nitrous oxides are more potent GHGs, why do people always talk about carbon dioxide? This is due to the fact it is by far the most abundant GHG, however we still cannot ignore these other GHGs.

Figure 2. UK annual temperature. Cooler years are blue, where as warmer years are red.

This image highlights that the five warmest years in the UK since 1884 have all been in the last 14 years. Although many of us (myself included) enjoy the sunshine and warm weather, this trend which is universal represents a huge threat to our livelihood. 2020 has been a year of extreme weather and a sign of things to come if we do not act now.

A Hostile Planet

From the fires raging in California and Siberia, to mass coral bleaching events in Australia and South-East Asia, everyone is being impacted by climate change. The Great Barrier Reef experienced its 5th and largest mass bleaching event in 2020. The Reef supports 64,000 jobs and contributes approximately $6.4 billion per annum to the Australian economy. The loss of this habitat is not only an ecological crisis, but an economic and social crisis; highlighting the symbiotic relationship that exists between humans and nature. The same can be said for the forest fires that have ravaged our planet this year. The economic cost of the Californian Wildfires are estimated to be in excess of $20 billion. People’s lives and homes have been lost. Habitats have been obliterated and the carbon stored in these trees has been released back into our atmosphere. As more GHGs enter our atmosphere, the probability of these extreme events reoccurring increases.

In the UK in February, we experienced our wettest month since records began. Storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge resulted in severe flooding, devastating people’s homes and businesses. The extreme rainfall also caused several landslips which can cause trains to derail, such as the incident at Stonehaven where three people lost their lives. Extreme heat can also cause tracks to buckle in the heat, which can lead to derailment. All this led the head of Scotland’s railway to state that “The railway in this country can no longer cope because of climate change”.

We all have an important choice to make before the damage becomes irreversible. Climate change does not have to be our Sisyphean task. The path to a sustainable, rehabilitated earth is clear. We must stop burning fossil fuels immediately. We must stop the destruction of our planets ecosystems. We must stop ignoring the problem. Everyone has a significant role to play to get the boulder to the top of the hill. Although our individual actions can feel dwarfed by the magnitude of the climate change crisis, our collective action to live sustainably will define how we overcome this issue.


Graphic courtesy of Alice Eaves.