Thursday briefing: What 400 scientists think about the future of our climate

<span>Greece has been struggling with forest fires that could not be controlled for 10 days on July 27, 2023 in Rhodes, Greece. Due to the fires that could not be stopped for days, a state of emergency was declared in Rhodes Island.</span><span>Illustration: Guardian Design/Halil Kahraman</span>
Greece has been struggling with forest fires that could not be controlled for 10 days on July 27, 2023 in Rhodes, Greece. Due to the fires that could not be stopped for days, a state of emergency was declared in Rhodes Island.Illustration: Guardian Design/Halil Kahraman

Good morning.

It is a cliche at this point, but the saying that every disaster movie starts with a scientist being ignored feels more painfully accurate with every passing day.

There is no shortage of scientific studies warning the world of the consequences of the climate crisis, and how it will accelerate if the situation does not change immediately. And yet, action is slow. Despite the ever-growing mass of evidence, we continue to be the frog in a pot of slowly boiling water.

In yet another example of the world’s scientists trying to raise the alarm, Guardian environment editor Damian Carrington asked hundreds of them about their thoughts on the future of the planet – and their predictions are predictably harrowing. Many expect global warming to hit 2.5C above preindustrial levels, way above internationally agreed targets. If adequate action is not taken, they warn that the world is heading towards a “semi-dystopian” future.

For today’s newsletter I spoke with Damian about why he conducted this survey and what the findings tell us about the future. That’s right after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. UK politics | Keir Starmer is facing shadow cabinet anger for welcoming a rightwing Conservative MP into his party. Natalie Elphicke, who has repeatedly attacked Labour over migration, is the second Tory MP in two weeks to cross the floor of the Commons, dealing another major blow to Rishi Sunak.

  2. Health | Drug shortages in England are now at such critical levels that patients are at risk of immediate harm and even death, pharmacists have warned. The situation is so serious that pharmacists increasingly have to issue “owings” to patients – telling someone that only part of their prescription can be dispensed and asking them to come back for the rest of it later, once the pharmacist has sourced the remainder.

  3. Israel-Gaza war | Joe Biden has issued a blunt warning to Israel that his administration will stop supplying bombs and artillery shells if its military pushes ahead with an offensive on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, in what could mark the start of a turning point in relations between the two countries.

  4. Foreign policy | In his first set-piece speech as foreign secretary outside parliament, David Cameron will warn that the west is not learning the lesson of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and that authoritarian adversaries will only be spurred on if the west shows hesitation or caution.

  5. US politics | Robert F Kennedy Jr, the third-party candidate for US president, said a health problem he experienced in 2010 “was caused by a worm that got into my brain and ate a portion of it and then died”, the New York Times reported.

In depth: ‘1.5C is a political game – we were never going to reach this target’

For almost a decade, 1.5C has been a key criterion in discussions about the climate crisis. In 2015, 195 countries pledged to “pursue efforts” to keep global warming below the 1.5C threshold as part of the Paris agreement. Politicians and diplomats roll out this number at any given opportunity, but over the past year Damian noticed an increasing discrepancy between what is being said at climate negotiations, which largely still tout this as an achievable international target, and what scientists believe is likely to happen. “Scientists were increasingly saying to me, ‘1.5C is never going to happen, it’s too late’,” Damian says. So he decided to find out just how many scientists agree the target is no longer viable.


Frustration and despair

Damian wrote to every contactable lead author or review editor of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports since 2018 – all 843 of them – and 380 replied. Their expertise ranged from political science to the economy, physics, climatology, energy, and agriculture, among many other fields. The IPCC is an authoritative body, approved by all governments to provide reports and recommendations on the climate crisis.

The responses to Damian’s survey confirmed his hunch: only 6% of respondents thought the internationally agreed 1.5C limit would be met; 80% thought that temperatures would rise at least 2.5C above pre industrial levels; half of respondents anticipated that it would rise to over 3C. One scientist, Jonathan Cullen at the University of Cambridge, simply said to Damian: “1.5C is a political game – we were never going to reach this target.”

For context, human-induced climate change has resulted in an average rise in warming of 1.2C above preindustrial levels over the last four years, which has already led to record-breaking heatwaves, floods, wildfires and other extreme weather events. “It’s possible, in some ways, to adapt and prepare to protect people’s lives and livelihoods from some of these things,” says Damian. “But another shocking thing that came out of this survey was that many of the experts think we are wildly unprepared.”

An unexpected part of the responses to the survey was the level of personal anguish scientists say they have experienced, with many describing a profound sense of hopelessness and frustration at the lack of urgency given to the growing crisis. Said one: “What the fuck do we have to do to tell people how serious this is?”


What does more than 1.5C heating look like?

Climate change is not a cliff-edge crisis – every fraction of a degree that the world warms above 1.5C, the worse the impact will be on the planet, its wildlife and human beings. The inverse is also true, so defeatism is not an option, scientists say.

A 2C rise, the upper limit target for the signatories of the Paris agreement, will lead to even more frequent and more extreme weather events, as well as permanent mass death of coral reefs and the “extensive, long-term [and] essentially irreversible” loss of many of the Earth’s ice sheets and glaciers. This, in turn, would potentially lead to irreversible sea level rise. There would also be huge biodiversity loss. Many experts say that 2C is too high of a target for these reasons. Anything over 2.5C is a “really catastrophic” scenario, Damian says.

The difference between 1.5C and 3C is stark: the annual likelihood of a heatwave in England is roughly 65% at 1.5C – at 3C, that number shoots up to 90%. Hotter air contains more water vapour so there will be more flooding around the world. The Amazon rainforest would diminish rapidly during dry seasons, a quarter of the world’s population could be exposed to extreme drought, and ice caps could collapse leading to uncontrollable sea level rise – Climate Central estimates that 275 million people live in areas that will be flooded at 3C of warming. “Megacities, like Shanghai or São Paulo are going to be below sea level, which will lead to more forced migration,” Damian says. “The picture that was painted by the scientists I spoke to was one of famines, conflicts and governments unable to cope with the climate disasters that affect their countries as real possibilities.”


No time for defeatism

All of this is not to say that experts are advocates of nihilism. Ultimately, systemic change is needed to stop the worst of the climate crisis – but in the meantime the other way of forcing change is through the ballot box, scientists say. For those who can vote, putting their support behind green candidates, especially during a time when other crises have pushed the climate emergency down the political agenda, is one way of making world leaders listen. The more optimistic experts told Damian that making the case clearly that climate-positive changes will make everyone’s quality of life better is vital. “Climate change is a slow-motion disaster – it happens bit by bit and that’s one of the reasons it’s difficult to deal with,” says Damian. “But it doesn’t mean that we can wait.”

For more from Damian on this story, sign up here to receive our environment newsletter Down to Earth tomorrow – and then every following Thursday

What else we’ve been reading

  • Feeling glum when you look in the mirror? Sarah Phillips’s latest Experts column sees her round up therapist-approved tips for a body confidence boost. Hannah J Davies, deputy editor, newsletters

  • Simon Hattenstone’s final instalment in his series about the IPP scandal is an important read. He spoke with Marc Conway (pictured above) – who risked his life to stop the London Bridge terror attack – about why he feared that the deed could send him back to prison under the conditions of his 99-year sentence. Nimo

  • This week’s long read is by Liao Yiwu on his remarkable story of smuggling his writing out of a Chinese prison, where he was held for four years. Nimo

  • Reading Lindsay Gellma’s New York magazine (£) piece on dodgy veneers made me feel better about my wonky teeth. Nimo

  • Worth it for the “Unleash the quiche” headline alone, here are Anna Berrill’s delicious seasonal recipes for flan fans. Hannah


Champions League | With Bayern Munich on the verge of victory, Joselu punished a Manuel Neuer blunder then scored again as Real Madrid won 2-1, 4-3 on aggregate.

Cricket | The former England cricketer Monty Panesar has pulled out of standing for George Galloway’s Workers party of Great Britain after only one week, after admitting he needs more time to “mature and find my political feet”.

Tennis | Andy Murray is scheduled to make his return to competition from a significant ankle injury later this month at the Geneva Open. On Wednesday morning it was announced that Murray had taken a wildcard into the ATP 250 event, which begins on 19 May, only a week before the start of the Roland Garros main draw begins in Paris.

The front pages

“Scientists despair amid forecast of at least 2.5C temperature rise” – that’s the lead story in the Guardian print edition. Also on the front: Natalie Elphicke and Keir Starmer. “Has there ever been a more shameless betrayal?” – the Daily Express lambasts both the ex-Tory and her new Labour leader. “Starmer splits party by accepting Tory defector” says the Times while the i has “Interest rate cut ‘can’t save Sunak’ amid defection row”. “Cameron: EU must be tougher on Russia” reports the Daily Telegraph. The Daily Mail has “Labour ‘willing to pander to sectarianism’” – that’s according to the Tory chairman, Richard Holden. “Worlds apart” – Harry was “two miles” from the King yesterday, calculates the Daily Mirror, but they did not meet. Top story in the Financial Times is “Pandemic era winners suffer $1.5tn fall in value as lockdown trends fade”. “Hear’s to you Opal” – the Metro leads on “baby born deaf cured in UK world first”. Opal Sandy looks happy about the success of her gene therapy.

Today in Focus

Escaping Rafah: on the ground in Gaza’s last refuge

We hear from two Palestinians living in tents in the city of Rafah. As the threat of an Israeli invasion hangs over them, they decide whether to stay or leave.

Cartoon of the day | Ben Jennings

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Mobile phones aren’t the worst invention in the world, but distracting apps and notifications can make concentration a challenge for many. For a Guardian Euro visions feature, highlighting the best ideas making headlines in Europe, Hannah Docter-Loeb visited an event organised by the Offline Club in Amsterdam. They are one of many groups around the continent working to remind ever-connected attendees what phone-free time can feel like, via “digital detox hangouts” where chatting, quiet time and solo activities like reading are on the menu. According to Ada Popowicz, a 25-year-old master’s student from Poland working on her thesis: “You think better because you’re not interrupted.”

It’s not just about having some peace, though – its organisers want people to become more conscious about how they interact with technology. “We are about inspiring people to implement the offline lifestyle more often into their lives, and to have a relationship with their digital devices that they are happy about,” says co-founder Ilya Kneppelhout.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday. And if you would like some more help getting off your phone, you can sign up for the Guardian’s Reclaim Your Brain coaching newsletter here

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day. Until tomorrow.