Merit Valdsalu / 17 September, 2020
Life in 2050 - Worst-Case Climate Change Scenario RCP8.5
“If RCP8.5 did not exist, we'd have to create it,” is the harsh truth about the worst-case climate change scenario that concludes the research paper published by the Woods Hole Research Center in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In 2005, the United Nation’s IPCC modeled alternative climate futures - also known as Representative Concentration Pathways, RCPs - reflecting the possible greenhouse gas concentration trajectories until the end of this century. Nobody planned on taking the worst possible case which was called the RCP8.5 or also known as the “high-emissions scenario” or “business as usual”.
It’s been 15 years now since we’ve come to know the RCP pathways. So far, we are steadily on track towards the worst-case scenario - differing in greenhouse gas concentrations within just 1%. Want to know what the world will be like 30 years from now if we continue down this path?
Welcome to 2050 in the worst-case climate scenario RCP8.5.
Moving a thousand km closer to the equator
London, historically known for its rainy and gloomy weather, has now temperatures resembling the Mediterranean city of Barcelona. Summer days with scorching 30 degrees Celsius and above are a common phenomenon as temperatures in the hottest months have climbed by almost 6 degrees.
Similar shifts have taken place all over the world. The weather conditions in the entire northern hemisphere have moved a 1000km south. Madrid’s climate resembles the one we knew in Marrakech. Stockholm now records similar patterns to Budapest. London is like Barcelona, Moscow like Sofia, Seattle feels like San Francisco and Tokyo is similar to Changsha.
Cities which we used to know as the tropics have now weather conditions we’d never seen anywhere before. 22% of the world’s urban areas exist in climatic regimes unimagined of decades ago, characterized by extremely heavy rain seasons combined with severe and intense droughts. Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Rangoon, and Singapore are some of the worst-hit places on the planet, year after year.
Global average temperatures have risen more than 4 degrees since the pre-industrial revolution. Though we, humans, have never experienced conditions like this before, these temperatures are nothing new to our home planet.
Earth has gone through global warmings to the same extent as before, but never with the speed we’ve seen in the past years. Changes in the global temperatures that used to take tens of thousands of years are now happening in a fraction of the time - in centuries and decades, even years and months.
By the end of the century, we’ll be looking at an entirely different planet. The vast majority of tropical rainforests, once lush and full of biodiversity, will have turned into savannahs and grasslands. Arctic sea ice will be gone along with many unique forms of life that once inhabited the North Pole. Polar bears will lose the fight for survival.
In 2050, we’re halfway there.
Every 6th species lost to extinction
The Bengal tiger has become the face of the global extinction wave, representing decades worth of biodiversity loss on Earth. Like with hundreds of other species we’ve lost, rapid climate change and sea-level rise are to blame for destroying their habitats, making it impossible for the species to continue life on this planet. By the year 2050, we will be lost every 6th species to extinction.
We’ve also bid farewell to arctic foxes, wolverines, marbled polecats, and many other terrestrial mammals. Most of the previously known endangered species have gone extinct globally; a few have, by today, vanished regionally but have little chance of surviving in their ever-shrinking habitats.
Besides terrestrial mammals, we’ve lost several whale species to the warming oceans. North Pacific Right Whales, Gray whales, North Pacific Bottle-Nosed Whales, and many other giants of the seas can now only be found in the marine history books.
Numerous dolphin and seal species have faced the same fate in the past few years. In addition to the sea surface temperature rise of 4.5 degrees Celsius in the most affected areas (like, for example, the Barents sea), continued marine traffic and offshore oil and gas exploitation have played a considerable role in destroying suitable living conditions for many marine species.
It’s 2050 and we’re still heavily reliant on fossil fuels.
Humans struggling to survive in climate change
While biodiversity around us is fading, the number of homo sapiens is growing rapidly. The global population recently reached 10 billion in 2050.
But it’s getting tougher and tougher out here. Every fourth Bangladeshi’s home is flooded every year; every third Vietnamese’s home, too. 300 million people across the world struggle with annual floods and constant displacement from their homes.
Some of the poorest countries in the world are hit the hardest, but climate change affects everyone. Rising sea levels have changed coastal areas across the globe.
Florida faces record floods in Key West, Miami, and Jacksonville every year. Rising sea levels, storm surges, and tides damage more than 49 million m2 buildings in New York City and affect 400,000 people.
It’s frightening to see how countries that have barely recovered from the floods get hit by severe droughts soon after. Half of the US west coast dries up every summer, making raging wildfires impossible to avoid.
While droughts have expanded spatially - affecting periodically more than 50% of Europe, Central America, and South Africa - they are also lasting longer and longer by year. An annual drought period lasting two and more months has become a rule rather than an exception.
These extreme events have made agriculture and food production one of the most vulnerable industries in the world. With vast proportions of crops destroyed by floods, droughts, and storms, food prices rise steadily. The 29% cereal price increase has become an anecdotal depiction of the current times.
Extreme weather conditions have a direct impact on people’s health as well. 95,000 people died this year, in 2050, due to heat-related conditions. While it’s often the heart that fails when temperatures go up to the extremes, we’re also witnessing an immense spread of deadly zoonotic diseases.
Malaria and dengue, for example, have received a massive boost from global warming. Rising temperatures have created suitable living conditions for mosquitoes in places they would not have survived a decade or two ago. Now the question is when, not if, they will spread outside their current habitats.
Curious to know what’s happened to COVID-19? There’s a vaccine for that now.
However, looking back, this nasty virus was just an introduction to the global pandemics we had coming after that. Due to the loss of wildlife habitats, more and more zoonotic diseases have jumped to humans in the past decades. New viruses and hotspots occur almost on a monthly basis now.
Life on Earth is quite terrifying in 2050. We’re witnessing how the planet is being reshaped from a rich and biodiverse environment to a harsh and even unwelcoming place where humans, as well as other species, are constantly fighting for survival.
Numerous species have been wiped off the Earth. Vast areas of breathtakingly beautiful nature have been destroyed, never to be seen again on this planet.
Floods, droughts, storms, and heatwaves thrash our homes over and over again. It would have been a devastating sight to see back in 2020.
Returning to the world we live in today, we can see that RCP8.5 is seen as the worst-case climate scenario that will never actually happen. However, scientists warn that we cannot create predictions by looking only at the future. We must take historical data and current experience into consideration as well - and today, these point us to RCP8.5.
“Not only are the emissions consistent with RCP 8.5 in close agreement with historical total cumulative CO2 emissions (within 1%), but RCP8.5 is also the best match out to mid-century under current and stated policies with still highly plausible levels of CO2 emissions in 2100,” Dr. Christopher Schwalm, Dr. Spencer Glendon, Dr. Philip Duffy, Woods Whole Reserach Center