The Future We Choose, a new book by the architects of the Paris climate accords, offers two contrasting visions for how the world might look in thirty years
It is 2050. Beyond the emissions reductions registered in 2015, no further efforts were made to control emissions. We are heading for a world that will be more than 3C warmer by 2100
The first thing that hits you is the air. In many places around the world, the air is hot, heavy and, depending on the day, clogged with particulate pollution. Your eyes often water. Your cough never seems to disappear. You think about some countries in Asia, where, out of consideration, sick people used to wear white masks to protect others from airborne infection. Now you often wear a mask to protect yourself from air pollution. You can no longer simply walk out your front door and breathe fresh air: there might not be any. Instead, before opening doors or windows in the morning, you check your phone to see what the air quality will be.
Fewer people work outdoors and even indoors the air can taste slightly acidic, sometimes making you feel nauseated. The last coal furnaces closed 10 years ago, but that hasn’t made much difference in air quality around the world because you are still breathing dangerous exhaust fumes from millions of cars and buses everywhere. Our world is getting hotter. Over the next two decades, projections tell us that temperatures in some areas of the globe will rise even higher, an irreversible development now utterly beyond our control. Oceans, forests, plants, trees and soil had for many years absorbed half the carbon dioxide we spewed out. Now there are few forests left, most of them either logged or consumed by wildfire, and the permafrost is belching greenhouse gases into an already overburdened atmosphere. The increasing heat of the Earth is suffocating us and in five to 10 years, vast swaths of the planet will be increasingly inhospitable to humans. We don’t know how hospitable the arid regions of Australia, South Africa and the western United States will be by 2100. No one knows what the future holds for their children and grandchildren: tipping point after tipping point is being reached, casting doubt on the form of future civilisation. Some say that humans will be cast to the winds again, gathering in small tribes, hunkered down and living on whatever patch of land might sustain them.
More moisture in the air and higher sea surface temperatures have caused a surge in extreme hurricanes and tropical storms. Recently, coastal cities in Bangladesh, Mexico, the United States and elsewhere have suffered brutal infrastructure destruction and extreme flooding, killing many thousands and displacing millions. This happens with increasing frequency now. Every day, because of rising water levels, some part of the world must evacuate to higher ground. Every day, the news shows images of mothers with babies strapped to their backs, wading through floodwaters and homes ripped apart by vicious currents that resemble mountain rivers. News stories tell of people living in houses with water up to their ankles because they have nowhere else to go, their children coughing and wheezing because of the mould growing in their beds, insurance companies declaring bankruptcy, leaving survivors without resources to rebuild their lives. Contaminated water supplies, sea salt intrusions and agricultural runoff are the order of the day. Because multiple disasters are often happening simultaneously, it can take weeks or even months for basic food and water relief to reach areas pummelled by extreme floods. Diseases such as malaria, dengue, cholera, respiratory illnesses and malnutrition are rampant.