Bill McGuire is emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London and his latest book, Hothouse Earth,
McGuire, a volcanologist and a member of the UK government’s Natural Hazard Working Group, takes an outlier position. Most other climate experts still maintain we have time left, although not very much, to bring about meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. A rapid drive to net zero and the halting of global warming is still within our grasp, they say.
Such claims are dismissed by McGuire.
At the Cop26 climate meeting in Glasgow last year, it was agreed that every effort should be made to try to limit that rise to 1.5C, although to achieve such a goal, it was calculated that global carbon emissions will have to be reduced by 45% by 2030.
“In the real world, that is not going to happen,” says McGuire. “Instead, we are on course for close to a 14% rise in emissions by that date – which will almost certainly see us shatter the 1.5C guardrail in less than a decade.”
“I know a lot of people working in climate science who say one thing in public but a very different thing in private. In confidence, they are all much more scared about the future we face, but they won’t admit that in public. I call this climate appeasement and I believe it only makes things worse. The world needs to know how bad things are going to get before we can hope to start to tackle the crisis.” He goes on to point out, “Just look at what is happening already to a world which has only heated up by just over one degree,” says McGuire. “It turns out the climate is changing for the worse far quicker than predicted by early climate models. That’s something that was never expected.”
Wildfires of unprecedented intensity and ferocity have also swept across Europe, North America and Australia this year, while record rainfall in the midwest led to the devastating flooding in the US’s Yellowstone national park and Kentucky. “And as we head further into 2022, it is already a different world out there,” he adds. “Soon it will be unrecognisable to every one of us.”
These changes underline one of the most startling aspects of climate breakdown: the speed with which global average temperature rises translate into extreme weather.
We should be in no doubt about the consequences. Anything above 1.5C will see a world plagued by intense summer heat, extreme drought, devastating floods, reduced crop yields, rapidly melting ice sheets and surging sea levels. A rise of 2C and above will seriously threaten the stability of global society, McGuire argues. It should also be noted that according to the most hopeful estimates of emission cut pledges made at Cop26, the world is on course to heat up by between 2.4C and 3C. From this perspective, it is clear we can do little to avoid the coming climate breakdown. Instead, we need to adapt to the hothouse world that lies ahead and start taking action to try to stop a bleak situation deteriorating even further, McGuire says.
Heatwaves will become more frequent, get hotter and last longer. Huge numbers of modern, tiny, poorly insulated UK homes will become heat traps, responsible for thousands of deaths every summer by 2050.
“Despite repeated warnings, hundreds of thousands of these inappropriate homes continue to be built every year,” adds McGuire.
McGuire stresses that if carbon emissions can be cut substantially in the near future, and if we start to adapt to a much hotter world today, a truly calamitous and unsustainable future can be avoided. The days ahead will be grimmer, but not disastrous. We may not be able to give climate breakdown the slip but we can head off further instalments that would appear as a climate cataclysm bad enough to threaten the very survival of human civilisation.
McGuire blames a “conspiracy of ignorance, inertia, poor governance, and obfuscation and lies by climate change deniers that has ensured that we have sleepwalked to within less than half a degree of the dangerous 1.5C climate change.
Sadly, in this blog's view, McGuire fails to identify the chief culprit - capitalism - as the motivating force for inaction.