The 10-Year Climate Challenge
The 10-year challenge has taken over social media in the last week. People have been uploading photos of themselves now compared with 2009, being very willing to share their questionable fashion choices and embarrassing iPhone 2 selfies from a decade ago.
I thought nothing could be more deeply concerning than the haircut I was sporting in 2009, but sprinkled within the memes were important and scary comparisons highlighting the environmental changes we have experienced in recent years.
The timing couldn’t have been better. Last week, the World Economic Forum released their Global Risks Report for 2019. They concluded that five of the top 10 risks in terms of likelihood were environmental, including the top three. They also warned that two societal risks (involuntary migration and water crises) are exacerbated by a changing climate.
Many — including celebrities and global organisations — took to their smartphones to raise awareness and spread an important message that resonated.
We hear it all the time on the news. The world is heating up, the glaciers are melting and sea level is rising. But, because this does not effect our everyday lives, we feel less connected to it and put it to the back of our minds.
This hashtag has allowed us to truly see the impacts of continuing to ignore the environment. Side-by-side comparison photos highlight the severity of changes in a number of areas. I’ll focus on three.
1. Melting Ice
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) shared NASA images of rapidly melting Arctic ice. In the last decade millions of tons of ice have been lost from the region, adding to the worries of rising sea level.
Just last week, scientists foundthat oceans were warming at a rate 40% faster than previously thought. This effect alone is thought to increase sea level rise by 30cm — enough to flood many coastal megacities leading to millions having to be forcibly displaced.
The impact on wildlife is enormous too. Ice is melting earlier and returning later, meaning predators have to spend more time relying on their fat stores alone. Polar bears eat seals and walruses, typically catching them when they rest on land.
Where ice melts permanently, polar bears will need to spend more time in the water catching prey — a difficult task for a 1600 pound animal. The enormous amount of energy required to do this often fruitless task is leading to more cases of starvation.
In the Antarctic, a study last year found nearly 3 trillion tons of ice have been lost since 1992, with half of that occurring in the last five years.
2018 was the year the world woke up to the reality of plastic pollution. ‘Single-use’ even became the word of the year.
Yet, 10 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year and if we continue on our current trajectory, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.
Plastic is the odd one out when looking at comparison photos. Not much has changed, and that’s the point. Each piece of plastic takes hundreds of years to biodegrade, by which time it could have killed marine life, polluted waterways and made its way back into the human food system in the form of microplastics.
3. Coral reefs
Coral reefs are in big trouble. The special report released by the IPCC in October concluded that if we were to keep temperature rise to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, we could possibly save 10–30% of coral reefs. If temperatures reach 2C, the study found, with very high confidence, that more than 99% of reefs will be lost.
We’re currently on a trajectory that will see us reach well above 3C by 2100.
The loss of marine life due to this will be unprecedented as will the economic losses. In Australia, the Great Barrier Reef contributes approximately A$6.4 billion annually (around $4.59 billion USD).
Millions of tourists will stop travelling to the region, meaning thousands of workers that rely on the industry will be left unemployed. Billions of dollars worth of infrastructure and machinery will become obsolete and the country as a whole will suffer.
This all sounds very depressing but, believe it or not, it’s not all doom and gloom.
In 10 years, the world has installed over 500 GW of solar capacity compared with just 16 GW in 2009. It is the fastest growing power generation source in the world, creating tens of thousands of jobs and the continued innovation is driving prices down for consumers and profits up for solar companies.
This industry is disproving the long-held view that pollution is a necessary evil to foster business and economic growth.
Reforestation is becoming common. While the Amazon is taking a hammering, and Brazil’s rainforest is likely to get far worse in the wake of newly elected Jair Bolsonaro, other regions are stepping up to increase tree cover.
Notorious polluter China aimed to create forests covering the size of Ireland in 2018 and over 1.5 million Indians planted in excess of 66 million trees in 12 hours as part of an enormous environmental campaign to take climate change more seriously.
Progress is progress.
Nonetheless, continuing down our current path is treacherous. Radical action is required at both individual and national level.
But, internet crusades are more powerful than you think. If one trend can gain so much global traction in a few days, there is no reason why sustained, effective climate action can’t follow suit.