An outdoor led display showing a very hot temperature of 33 degrees Celcius.
Image credit: Jonas Jaeken on Unsplash

“I think we are headed for major societal disruption within the next five years. [Authorities] will be overwhelmed by extreme event after extreme event, food production will be disrupted,” said the University of Tasmania’s Gretta Pecl to the Guardian.

Pecl, a professor of marine ecology, was one of many leading scientists and climate change experts polled by the publication. According to the poll, hundreds of them “expect global temperatures to rise to at least 2.5C (4.5F) above preindustrial levels this century, blasting past internationally agreed targets and causing catastrophic consequences.”

But according to another polled scientist, Peter Cox from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, “it will not be ‘game over’ if we pass 2C.” Instead, Cox and others argue, the fight for the planet must continue, even stronger than before, as reducing the world’s temperature by even fragments of degrees will make a major difference for human, plant, and animal life.

A Half Degree of Difference

In 2015, the Paris Climate Agreement, a consortium of world leaders, pledged to cut greenhouse gases in order to limit global temperature. The leaders, representing nearly 200 countries, vowed to try to limit the planet’s temperature rise to only 1.5C above the levels in preindustrial times. Important in the pledge was the commitment to keep those temperature increases “well below” a 2.0C rise, according to the BBC.

According to the study, ocean temperatures started rising 80 years earlier than scientists previously thought.

Why these specific numbers? As the BBC reported, “Every 0.1C of temperature increase brings with it greater risks for the planet—longer heatwaves, more intense storms and wildfires. The 1.5C target was agreed because there is very strong evidence that the impacts would become much more extreme as the world gets closer to 2C. Some changes could become irreversible.”

“For every increment of global warming, changes in extremes become larger,” climate scientist Sonia Seneviratne at ETH Zurich told Reuters. Heatwaves would not only last longer, but be more frequent and severe, as would all storms. A warmer atmosphere is also more moist, leading to a rise in flood risk. More animals would lose their habitats, which would impact food production. Insects would proliferate as well, leading to a rise in insect-borne diseases like malaria.

These global warming-induced changes would occur across the globe. “Blow past 2°C and the ice sheets could collapse,” Reuters wrote. While a temperature increase of 1.5C was predicted to destroy 70 percent of coral reefs, possibly more: “at 2°C more than 99% would be lost.”

Miscalculating an Urgent Timeline

Less than a decade after the Paris Climate Agreement, some scientists and researchers believe the 1.5C pledge has already been broken.

In February 2024, a study from the University of Western Australia Oceans Institute found a critical miscalculation. In the study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, researchers observed sclerosponges, an underwater cave dwelling sea sponge. Scientists consider these sponges “natural archives” because of their very slow growth. According to Popular Mechanics, this slow growth “allows them to lock away climate data in their limestone skeletons, not entirely unlike tree rings or ice cores.”

“When disasters strike, women are less likely to survive and more likely to be injured due to long standing gender inequalities.”

By observing the sponges, scientists from the Oceans Institute were able to trace water temperatures back to the 1700s. According to the study, ocean temperatures started rising 80 years earlier than scientists previously thought. This means that the ambitious pledge from the Paris Climate Agreement has already been breached, as a rise of 1.7C may have happened years ago, back in 2020.

The study’s findings are controversial. Some scientists call for more data, especially before making drastic changes to the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. But if a goal has been exceeded, is it still a goal? Regardless, the sea sponges are yet another life form sounding the alarm: time is running out.

Nearly 80 percent of the expert respondents from the Guardian survey expressed that, if it hasn’t been reached already, global heating in this century will reach at least a 2.5C increase, possibly even higher. The Guardian wrote, “Many of the scientists envisage a ‘semi-dystopian’ future, with famines, conflicts and mass migration, driven by heatwaves, wildfires, floods and storms of an intensity and frequency far beyond those that have already struck.”

New Sources of Hope

“My only source of hope is the fact that, as an educator, I can see the next generation being so smart and understanding the politics.”

An interesting finding from the Guardian survey is that younger scientists, part of the generation that will inherit the climate crisis, expressed more pessimism than scientists over 50. The same is true of female scientists, nearly half of whom responded that they believed the global temperature would rise 3C or more, as opposed to only 38 percent of male scientists who believed the same.

These disparities in responses are possibly due to the disproportionate impacts of climate change, with the crisis highlighting already existing gender inequalities. As the United Nations wrote, “Across the world, women depend more on, yet have less access to, natural resources.” Women bear an unequal burden in locating food, water, and fuel. Many women around the globe work in agriculture, which has already seen massive shifts due to the climate crisis.

According to the UN, “When disasters strike, women are less likely to survive and more likely to be injured due to long standing gender inequalities that have created disparities in information, mobility, decision-making, and access to resources and training. In the aftermath, women and girls are less able to access relief and assistance, further threatening their livelihoods, wellbeing and recovery, and creating a vicious cycle of vulnerability to future disasters.”

Despite this grim prediction, some scientists, including women, expressed optimism to the Guardian, in the form of hope for change and concrete action. Lisa Schipper, from the University of Bonn, said: “My only source of hope is the fact that, as an educator, I can see the next generation being so smart and understanding the politics.” Indeed, government inaction was cited by many of those surveyed as a source of frustration in curbing the global warming trends.

The next generation also understands the science. Henry Neufeldt, from the UN’s Copenhagen Climate Center, told the Guardian, “I am convinced that we have all the solutions needed for a 1.5C path and that we will implement them in the coming 20 years.”

Some of those solutions may come from young people themselves. As the Nation reported in 2023, “the majority of young people want to have environmentally sustainable careers,” with nearly 60 percent of young people surveyed in 2020 desiring a green job.

They understand the urgency in a rapidly warming world, as Roya Amini-Naieni, cofounder and CEO of synthetic biology lab Trilobio and named one of Forbes 30 under 30, told the Nation. Amini-Naieni, who hopes more young women—particularly young women of color—get involved in addressing climate change, advised: “Change the way things have been done by starting your own company, or contribute to an academic lab or budding startup that won’t take advantage of an individual’s strong desire to do good in the world.”