Wake Up to the Fierce Urgency of the Now

by Camilla Cockerton

“Our house is on fire!”, Swedish 16-year-old Greta Thunberg warned the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. 2“At places like Davos, people like to tell success stories. But their financial success has come with an unthinkable price tag.”

The evidence for rapid climate change is compelling: rising global temperatures (0.9° Celsius since the late 19th century); warming oceans (0.22°C since 1969); shrinking ice sheets; glacial retreat; decreased snow cover; global sea level rise (20.3 cms in the last century); declining Arctic sea ice; extreme weather events such as floods, storms, cyclones and droughts; and ocean acidification and the rapid bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef (30% more acidic than the industrial revolution).3 Effects are evident in New Zealand where glaciers have lost one quarter of their volume since 1977.4 The Franz Josef glacier abruptly changed directions in 2008 and entered a very rapid phase of retreat. If global warming continues at its current pace, the glacier will almost completely disappear.

As David Suzuki warns:

Human use of fossil fuels is altering the chemistry of the atmosphere; oceans are polluted and depleted of fish; 80 per cent of Earth’s forests are heavily impacted or gone yet their destruction continues. An estimated 50,000 species are driven to extinction each year. We dump millions of tonnes of chemicals, most untested for their biological effects, and many highly toxic, into air, water and soil. We have created an ecological holocaust. Our very health and survival are at stake, yet we act as if we have plenty of time to respond.5

What is causing climate change? Earth’s atmosphere consists of oxygen, a large amount of nitrogen and a small percentage of greenhouses gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane. Greenhouse gases act like a blanket around the earth, trapping warmth from the sun and making life on earth possible. Without them, too much heat would escape and the earth’s surface would freeze. However, increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases causes the earth to heat up. Industry, agriculture and transportation, over the past 150 years, have dramatically increased greenhouse gas production.

Scientific evidence for the warming of the climate system is unequivocal. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a gathering of the world’s leading climate scientists, has warned that only 12 years remain to slow the earth’s rising temperatures to a maximum of 1.5°C and avoid catastrophic environmental breakdown.6 However, others criticize the IPCC reports as overly conservative, consistently understating the rate and intensity of climate change. The reports don’t include tipping points or feedback loops like the extremely powerful methane gas which will be released from the thawing Arctic permafrost.7

If atmospheric CO2 levels exceed 1,200 parts per million, climatecooling stratocumulus clouds shading much of the ocean could break up. This would push the earth’s climate over a tipping point (a critical threshold beyond which rapid climate changes cannot be reversed), a massive 8°C rise and potentially catastrophic warming.8

Dr Camilla Cockerton is an independent researcher. Her book Contested Migration: Tswana Women ‘Running Away’ from the ‘Land of the Desert’ was recently published by Palgrave- McMillan.


1 Yong Kim, J. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/ agenda/2015/11/15-quotes-on-climate-change-by-world-leaders/

2 ‘Our house is on fire’: Greta Thunberg, 16, urges leaders to act on climate. (2019, January 25). The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www. theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/25/our-house-is-on-fire-gretathunberg16- urges-leaders-to-act-on-climate

3 NASA. (2019). Climate change: how do we know? Retrieved from https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/

4 Ministry for the Environment. (2017, October). Our atmosphere and climate 2017. Retrieved from http://www.mfe.govt.nz/publications/ environmental-reporting/our-atmosphere-and-climate-2017; The Climate Reality Project. (2016, June 21). Global warming’s evil twin: ocean acidification. Retrieved from https://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/ global-warming-ocean-acidification

5 Suzuki, D. (2009). Acceptance speech. The Right Livelihood Award. Retrieved from https://www.rightlivelihoodaward.org/speech/ acceptance-speech-david-suzuki/

6 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2018). Global warming of 1.5C: summary for policymakers. Switzerland: IPCC. Retrieved from https:// report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_spm_final.pdf

7 Scherer, G. (2012, December 6). Climate science predictions prove too conservative. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www. scientificamerican.com/article/climate-science-predictions-prove-tooconservative/

8 Schneider, T., Kaul, C. & Pressel, K. (2019). Possible climate transitions from breakup of stratocumulus decks under greenhouse warming, Nature, 12, 163-167.