Project 101
Climate Change 101
Our future on a warming planet

News about climate change can make you want to go lie in a corner in the fetal position. It now looks as if life on earth is going to get a lot more uncomfortable, thanks to the effects of global warming.

But it’s precisely in periods of great change that our decisions, our actions – and the stories we tell one another – make the biggest difference.

We can build a clean and fair global energy system. We can learn to live on a hotter planet. And we can show our deepest solidarity with the people most affected by climate change.

In this crash course on climate change, we explore why global warming is dangerous and what’s being done to put a stop to it. But Climate Change 101 is just a starting point, so do keep coming back. We will be adding new articles and fresh insights over the next few months. Join us!

—Translated from Dutch by Laura Martz and Mark Speer

  • Jelmer Mommers
    Energy and Climate Correspondent
    Jelmer Mommers

Why should I worry about rising temperatures?

Industrial livestock farming, deforestation, and fossil fuel use have released unprecedented amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It’s been tens of millions of years since there was this much CO2 out there, and levels have never increased as fast as they did in 2015.

Some 97% of climate scientists agree that greenhouse gases emitted by human beings are having a dominant influence on the climate.

When records shatter in rapid succession, you know it’s time to worry. 2016 is on the way to being the hottest year ever. The last record year was 2015, which unseated the previous one, 2014. And the records are being broken by ever-greater margins.

We’re the effects around the world. For example, over the last 30 years, at least half the ice at the North Pole has melted.


How likely is it that warming will get out of control?

All the world’s countries want to prevent hazardous climate change, so they’ve agreed to keep warming below 2°C (and to strive to limit it to 1.5°C). The problem is, we’ve already nearly exceeded that limit.

At the current rate, by between 2030 and 2045, we’ll have blown our chance of keeping warming below 2°C. We’ll have used up our carbon budget.

Most models indicate we’re on course for a temperature by the year 2100. An extreme scenario of 5°, 6°, or 7°C could lead to large parts of the world becoming uninhabitable, causing the forced migration of – in the worst case – billions of people.

While that’s not the probable outcome, the likelihood that things will get out of control is unacceptably high. How high? And what will the consequences be? More stories coming soon on the worst-case scenarios and the tragedy of the climate: Even if we halt emissions, warming will continue.


What are the consequences of climate change?

Higher temperatures are already triggering more droughts and storms, causing failed harvests, and driving people from their homes. These problems will continue to worsen and affect more people as the mercury keeps rising.

Since 10% of the world’s population lives in low-lying coastal areas and three-quarters of major cities are by the sea, rising sea levels are one of the greatest hazards of climate change.

Before the last ice age, about 120,000 years ago, the temperature on earth was 1° Celsius higher than it is today, and sea levels were 5 to 9 meters higher. The rising waters to come will threaten cities such as London, Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, New York, and Amsterdam.

The numerous other effects to look forward to include a shortage of fresh water, searing heat, and increasingly destructive forest fires. Warming has far-reaching effects on biodiversity and marine life, too. You can learn more in our in-depth coverage; new stories coming soon!


The epic tale of the global energy transition

In December 2015 in Paris, all the world’s countries agreed to bring greenhouse gas emissions to net zero in the second half of this century. The end of the fossil fuel era is in sight: solar and wind power is becoming competitive with fossil fuel energy in more and more countries.

Right now, though, sun and wind combined still generate less than 2% of energy used around the world. For example, we still use unthinkable amounts of oil to get around and natural gas to heat our homes.

If we want to keep the world safe to live in, we must stop producing emissions and considerably current greenhouse gas levels. Renewable energy growth alone won’t limit climate change.

The good news is, cheaper clean tech is opening up new options for governments, which are planning to do things like ban the sale of gasoline-powered cars. So the global energy transition is starting to become an epic story.


The silent exit of fossil fuels

More and more major investors, pension funds, and private and central banks are realizing that investments in the could become worthless later this century. Little by little, they’re exerting their influence to steer companies toward sustainability or turning their backs on them altogether.

Owners of coal-fired power plants and builders of mines have taken a hit on the stock market in recent years, partly due to competition from solar and wind energy. And the oil and gas industry is having a hard time too, in part because of low oil prices.

Demand for fossil fuels won’t disappear overnight, but if the energy transition accelerates, some analysts say demand for oil and gas will peak a lot sooner than the industry expects, leading to large-scale capital destruction.

To date, oil and gas companies have done little to move away from fossil fuels, even though all the countries in the world have said they want to stop using them. How will this end? We’ve published a number of stories about that.


How lawyers and judges are helping curb climate change

Citizens and activist groups have begun taking governments to court to force them to take action against climate change. After all, contributing to global warming – or doing too little to limit it – means contributing to the violation of human rights, like the right to food and a safe environment.

The most successful case so far has been the environmental organization Urgenda’s lawsuit against the Dutch state in 2015. The judge ruled the government was doing too little to prevent hazardous climate change and had to step up its efforts to cut emissions to protect citizens.

In the U.S., similar cases have been filed against various states on behalf of children, and others are under way in Belgium and elsewhere. The common refrain in these complaints: it’s not fair to wreck the climate in a few generations for all those to come.


What can I do?

We can’t end the fossil fuel age without and the active cooperation of business. But “regular people” are anything but powerless.

As a consumer, you can make a difference by your carbon footprint. As a citizen, you can use your voice inside and outside the voting booth. For instance, citizens are pressing cities, universities, and pension funds to publicly declare themselves fossil-free and divest from the industry.

The number of energy cooperatives founded by people who’ve decided to take matters into their own hands is rising fast. And worldwide citizen mobilization around the Paris climate conference in December 2015 helped get the ambitious target of 1.5°C

We’ve published a range of stories about the growing group of active people who are joining forces and making a big impact. More English versions to come!


Climate justice: fairer distribution on a hotter planet

There’s a limit to the amount of CO2 we can still emit, and rich consumers are taking a much bigger slice of the pie than poor ones. On top of that, poor people are suffering more from the consequences. That’s not fair, and the calls for climate justice are getting louder.

Spiritual leaders like Pope Francis even argue that helping those suffering because of our emissions is a sacred duty. He has said the West owes poor countries an ecological debt – echoing prominent progressive climate activists like Naomi Klein, who say capitalism needs to make way for a fairer, more equitable system.

As long as one person’s carbon footprint is vastly greater than another’s, there can be no true sustainability. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of powerful pleas for fair distribution on a hotter planet.


Why we shouldn’t fear climate change

Climate change can sometimes feel like the end of the world. A lot of people believe it will be our downfall, and the big question is whether we can take our foot off the gas before we drive into the abyss.

But there is no abyss. And there will be no climate apocalypse. (We’re not getting out of this that easily!) Instead, there are creeping changes and real crises we’re failing to notice because they’re not glaringly visible or because we’re anticipating the misery predicted for the future.

We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear. We know a green revolution is under way. And we know that citizens, companies, and governments will shape the future together.

In short, now is the time to think about what we can do. Society has seen radical change and improvement before – driven not by the forces of nature but by the power of the people.


Hopeful stories for a sustainable world

We can’t draw up a blueprint for the future. It’s a story we’re writing together. At times of crisis and transition, stories that provide hope are vital. They provide us with meaning and inspiration. And that means they can change the world.

So the stories we tell each other about climate change matter. That’s why The Correspondent will be publishing hopeful stories about a sustainable future. We will be adding new articles and fresh insights over the next few months.

Let’s keep the conversation going about the future we want.