Bill McGuire’s latest book published, hothouse earth, couldn’t be longer. Appearing in stores this week, it will be seen by customers who have endured record high temperatures across the UK and now face the prospect of weeks of drought to add to their woes.
And this is just the beginning, says McGuire, who is emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London. As he makes clear in his uncompromising depiction of the impending climate catastrophe, we have – for far too long – ignored clear warnings that rising carbon emissions are dangerously warming the Earth. Now we are going to pay the price of our complacency in the form of storms, floods, droughts and heat waves that will easily surpass the current extremes.
He argues that the important point is that we now have no chance of surviving a dangerous, widespread climate breakdown. We have passed the point of no return and can expect a future in which deadly heat and temperatures over 50C (120F) are common in the tropics; Where summers will always be warm at temperate latitudes, and where our oceans are destined to be warm and acidic. McGuire insists, “A child born in 2020 will face a world far more hostile than what his or her grandparents did.”
Bill McGuire is Emeritus Professor of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College London and was also an advisor to the UK Government.
In this regard, the volcanologist, who was also a member of the UK government’s natural hazards working group, takes an extreme position. Most other climate experts still believe that we have time, though not much, to achieve meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. They say that moving fast from zero and stopping global warming is still within our grasp.
McGuire has dismissed such claims. “I know a lot of people working in climate science who say one thing publicly but say a very different thing in private. In confidence, they are all more scared about the future we face. But they won’t admit it publicly. I call it climate appeasement and I believe it only makes things worse. The world needs to know before we can hope to tackle the crisis. What is needed is how bad things are going to get.”
McGuire finished writing hothouse earth At the end of 2021. They included several record high temperatures that had just hit the planet, including the extremes that hit the UK. A few months after completing his manuscript, and as soon as publication began, he found that many of those records had already been broken. “That’s the trouble with writing a book about climate breakdown,” says McGuire. “By the time it’s published it’s out of date. That’s how fast things are moving.”
Among the records broken during the editing of the book was the announcement that on 19 July temperatures in eastern England had reached 40.3C, the highest ever recorded in the UK. (The country’s previous warmest temperature, 38.7C, was in Cambridge in 2019.)
In addition, London’s fire service had to deal with fires across the capital, in which one fire destroyed 16 homes in Wennington, east London. The workers there had to struggle to save the local fire station. “Who would have thought that in 2022 a village on the edge of London would be almost wiped out by wildfires,” McGuire says. “If this country needs a wake-up call then that’s it for sure.”
Unprecedented intensity and fierce wildfires have spread across Europe, North America and Australia this year, while record rains in the Midwest have caused devastating flooding in the US’s Yellowstone National Park. “And as we move into 2022, it’s already a different world,” he says. “Soon it will be unfamiliar to each of us.”
Kurdish farmers battle a fire in a wheat field in Syria’s north-eastern Hasaka province, a bread basket native to the region. Photograph: Delil Suleiman / AFP / Getty Images
These changes underscore one of the most startling aspects of climate breakdown: the rate at which global average temperatures rise into extreme weather.
“Look at what’s already happening for a world that’s only warmed by more than a degree,” says McGuire. “It turns out that the climate is changing much faster than the early climate models predicted. This is something that was never expected.”
Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, when humanity began pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, global temperatures have increased by just over 1C. At the Cop26 climate meeting in Glasgow last year, it was agreed that every effort should be made to limit that increase to 1.5C, although to achieve such a target, it was calculated that global carbon Emissions have to be reduced by 45. % by 2030
“In the real world, that’s not going to happen,” McGuire says. “Instead, we are certainly closer to a 14% increase in emissions by that date – which will almost certainly see us shattering the 1.5C railing in less than a decade.”
And we should have no doubts about the results. Anything above 1.5C will see a world plagued by intense summer heat, extreme drought, devastating floods, low crop yields, rapidly melting ice sheets and rising sea levels. McGuire argues that a rise to 2C and above would seriously threaten the stability of global society. It should also be noted that according to the most optimistic estimates of the emission reduction pledges made in Cop26, the world is on the verge of warming between 2.4C and 3C.
From this perspective it is clear that there is little we can do to avoid the coming climate breakdown. Instead we need to adapt to the hothouse world that lies ahead and initiate action to try to stop a bleak situation worsening even further, McGuire says.
Fox Glacier in New Zealand in winter. It has retreated 900 meters in a decade. Photograph: Gabor Kovacs/Alamy
Certainly, as it stands, Britain – although relatively well placed to combat the worst effects of the coming climate breakdown – faces major headaches. Heatwaves will become more frequent, get hotter and last longer. Large numbers of modern, small, poorly insulated UK homes will become heat traps in the UK, responsible for thousands of deaths every summer by 2050.
“Despite repeated warnings, hundreds of thousands of these unsuitable homes continue to be built each year,” says McGuire.
As for the reason for the world’s tragically slow response, McGuire described the “ignorance, inertia, poor governance, and obscurity of conspiracy and lies by climate change denialists that have ensured that we are half of the alarming 1.5″. Have slept within less than a degree. C climate change railing. Soon, except by some kind of miracle, we’ll be crashing through it.”
The future seems to forbid this approach, although McGuire stressed that if carbon emissions can be cut significantly in the near future, and if we begin to adapt to a warming world today, a disastrous one indeed. And a volatile future can be avoided. The days ahead will be grim, but not disastrous. We may not be able to undo the climate breakdown, but we can foresee further installments of what would appear as a climate cataclysm bad enough to threaten the very existence of human civilization.
“It’s a call to arms,” he says. “So if you feel the need to stick yourself to a motorway or block an oil refinery, do it. Drive an electric car or, even better, use public transportation, walk or cycle. Switch to green energy tariffs.” Do it; eat less meat. Stop flying; Defend your elected representatives at both the local and national levels; and use your vote wisely to form a government that talks about the climate emergency.”
Hothouse Earth: An Inhabitants’ Guide By Bill McGuire Published by Icon Books, £9.99
The Gulf Stream, starting in the Gulf of Mexico and passing through the Atlantic Ocean, is weakening due to climate breakdown. Photo: NOAA
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under our feet As thick sheets of ice disappear from the high mountains and poles, the rock crust that was previously compressed is beginning to rebound, threatening to trigger earthquakes and tsunamis. “We are on track to make our children and their children not only a much warmer world, but a more geologically dissolving one,” says Bill McGuire.
new battlefield As crops burn and hunger spreads, communities are drawn into conflict and the election of populist leaders – who will promise the earth to their people – is likely to become commonplace. Tension between India, Pakistan over increasing water supply is most worrying And China, the owner of all nuclear weapons. “The last thing we need is a heated war on water between the world’s two nuclear powers,” McGuire observed.
methane bomb Formed by wetlands, cattle and termites, methane is 86 times more potent at heating the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, although fortunately it hangs around for a much shorter time. The problem is that most of the world’s methane is trapped in the layers of Arctic permafrost. As these melt, more methane will be released and our world will get even warmer.
lose the gulf stream As ice caps melt, cold water from the Arctic threatens to block or divert the Gulf Stream, which carries a singular amount of heat from the tropics to the seas around Europe. Signs now suggest that the Gulf Stream is already weakening and may stop completely before the turn of the century, bringing powerful winter storms to Europe.
Calorie Crunch Four-fifths of all calories consumed worldwide come from just 10 crop plants which include wheat, corn and rice. McGuire says many of these staples won’t grow well under high temperatures, which will soon become the norm, pointing to drastic reductions in food availability that will have devastating effects on the entire planet.