Big Data

I thought most of us were going to die from the climate crisis. I was wrong | Climate crisis

“Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris” – Independent, 2015.

A world that was 6C warmer than it is today would be devastating. And remember, 6C is just the average. Some parts of the world would get much warmer, especially the poles. Crops would fail. Many people would be malnourished. Forests would be stripped back into savannahs. Island nations would be completely submerged. Many cities will have disappeared due to sea-level rise. Climate refugees will be on the move. “Normal” temperatures in many parts of the world would be unbearable. Even the richest, most temperate nations would see devastating floods most winters and baking summers. We would be at very high risk of setting off warming feedback loops – the melted ice would reflect less sunlight, the melted permafrost might unlock methane from the bottom of the ocean, and dying forests wouldn’t be able to regrow to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. A 6C warmer world might be short-lived – it could quickly spiral into 8C, 10C or more. It would be a massive humanitarian disaster.

Only a few years ago, I thought this was where we were headed. Forget 1.5C or 2C – we were destined for 4C, 5C or 6C and there was nothing we could do about it. Most people still think that this is the path we’re following. Thankfully, it’s not.

In 2015, I went to Paris for the big, famous climate conference, Cop21. Representatives and policymakers from every country came together to hash out a new climate deal. The previous goal of the international agreement was to keep the global average temperature rise below 2C by the end of the century. So I couldn’t believe it when there were rumours that a target of 1.5C was being discussed. Were they crazy? At that point, I had already given up on the prospects of 2C. It was so far out of our reach. The notion that we could keep the rise below 1.5C seemed delusional. And yet the target made it into the final agreement. Mostly as an aspiration, but it was in there nonetheless. The world pledged to “limit global warming to ‘well below’ 2C above pre-industrial levels and also, if possible, ‘pursue’ efforts to cap warming at 1.5C”.

My perspective on 1.5C hasn’t shifted much since then. Without a major, unexpected technological breakthrough, we will go past this target. Nearly all the climate scientists I know agree: they obviously want to cap warming at 1.5C, but very few think it will happen. This doesn’t stop them fighting for it, though; they know that every 0.1C matters, and is worth working for. But my perspective on 2C has changed. I’m now cautiously optimistic that we can get close to it. It’s more likely than not that we will pass 2C, but perhaps not by much. And there is still a reasonable chance – if we really step up to the challenge – that we can stay below it.

My perspective flipped quickly after studying the data, not newspaper headlines. I didn’t focus on where we are today, but on the pace that things have moved at in the past few years, and what this means for the future. One organisation – the Climate Action Tracker – follows every country’s climate policies, and its pledges and targets. It combines them all to map out what will happen to the global climate. At Our World in Data, I sketch out these future climate trajectories and update them every year. Every time, they get closer and closer to the pathways we would need to follow to stay below 2C.

If we stick with the climate policies that countries currently have in place, we’re heading towards a world of 2.5C to 2.9C warming. Let me be clear: this is terrible and we have to avoid it. But countries have pledged to go much further. They’ve committed to making their policies much more ambitious. If each country was to follow through on their climate pledges, we’d come out at 2.1C by 2100.

What’s most promising is how these pathways have shifted over time. In a world without climate policies, we’d be heading towards 4C or 5C, at least. This is the path that most people still think we’re on. That would be a scary world indeed. Thankfully, over time, countries have stepped up their commitments. As we saw with the example of the ozone layer, incremental increases in ambition can make a huge difference.

Hannah Ritchie
Ritchie’s perspective ‘flipped after studying the data, not newspaper headlines’. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Observer

The other big change is that moving to a low-carbon, sustainable economy is not seen as the sacrifice it used to be. Fossil fuels were far cheaper than renewables. Electric vehicles cost a fortune. But now low-carbon technologies are becoming cost-competitive. It now makes financial sense to take the climate-friendly path. Leaders have become more optimistic about how the landscape is changing. We are still some distance from a 2C pathway. We need to step up our efforts – and quickly. But as it becomes more and more realistic, I’m confident we can keep moving closer to it.

When I was in my early teens, I thought most of us were going to die from climate change. I tried to convince my classmates of this, too. For my English oral exam, I held up a map of all of the cities and coastlines that were going to sink by the end of the century. I showed projected satellite images of the wildfires that would ravage the globe. In trying to light flames of interest, I simply added fire to my own anxieties.

By the time I reached Edinburgh University, I was being flooded with images every day. Some from my university lectures, which, given the fact I’d chosen a degree in earth sciences, was expected. But, more importantly, my obsession for environmental sciences was growing in tandem with the uptick in the frequency of reporting. The more determined I became to stay informed, the quicker the stories came at me, often accompanied by streams of recorded videos. I didn’t have to imagine the pain of the victims, I could see and hear it, too. As a responsible citizen, I wanted to stay informed. I had to know what the latest disaster was. To switch off from them seemed like a betrayal to the lives that were lost.

With reports of disasters coming at me faster every day, it seemed that things must be getting worse. Climate change was driving an intensification of disasters, and more people were dying than ever before.

Or so I thought. The problem was that I mistook the increase in the frequency of reporting as an increase in the frequency of disasters. I mistook an increase in the intensity of my secondhand suffering for an increase in the intensity of global suffering. In reality, I had no idea what was happening. Were disasters getting worse? Were there more this year than last? Were there more people dying than ever before?

Then I discovered the work of Swedish physician, statistician and public speaker Hans Rosling. Videos of his lectures taught me that extreme poverty and child mortality were falling and education and life expectancy were rising. I went looking for other areas where my preconceptions might be wrong. I started with data on “natural” disasters. I would have bet a lot of money that more people were dying from disasters today than a century ago. I was completely wrong. Death rates from disasters have actually fallen since the first half of the 20th century. And not just by a little bit. They have fallen roughly tenfold.

It’s at this point that I should make one thing clear: none of the above means that climate change is not happening. The decline in deaths from disasters does not mean that disasters are getting weaker or less common. Deniers often misuse this data to downplay the existence or risks of climate change. But that’s not what the data shows us at all.

In the past, it was common for disasters to claim millions of lives a year. The 1920s, 30s and 40s were particularly bad. There were a few large earthquakes that claimed many lives: China, Japan, Pakistan, Turkey and Italy were all hit by a series of earthquakes that cost tens of thousands of lives. The most lethal – the 1920 earthquake that struck the Gansu province in China – is estimated to have killed 180,000 people. But it was drought and floods that were the most deadly. China endured a number of large floods and droughts through the 1920s and 30s, which often led to widespread famine and killed millions at a time.

Today, the annual death toll is much smaller, usually between 10,000 and 20,000. Sometimes, there are particularly devastating years where the toll is much higher – like 2010, when the annual death toll was more than 300,000, with most deaths resulting from the Haitian earthquake.

When I zoomed out and saw these trends, I felt stupid. I also felt cheated. I had been duped by an education system that was supposed to teach me about the world. I was a diligent student. I won medals for coming top for everything, from earth materials to sedimentology, atmospheric science to oceanography. I could create complex diagrams of seismic faults, I could recite the chemical formulas of pages of minerals from memory, but if you’d asked me to draw a graph of what was happening to deaths from disasters, I’d have sketched it upside down.

I wasn’t alone in my ignorance. In the 2017 Gapminder Misconception Study, the public, across 14 countries, were asked 12 key questions, one of which was:

How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the past 100 years?

a) More than doubled
b) Remained more or less the same
c) Decreased to less than half

Just 10% got the right answer: c). The most popular answer, 48% of the vote, was a).

To tackle climate change, we have to accept two things: climate change is happening and human emissions of greenhouse gases are responsible. We simply don’t have time to argue about the existence of climate change. By “we”, I mean all of us, collectively. The time for debating is over. We need to move past it to the question of what we’re going to do about it.

Let’s take a close look at where we are with carbon emissions. They are still rising, but the world has already passed the peak of per capita emissions. It happened a decade ago. Most people are unaware of this.

In 2012, the world topped out at 4.9 tonnes per person. Since then, per capita emissions have been slowly falling. Nowhere near fast enough, but falling nonetheless. This is a signal that the peak in our total (not per capita) CO2 emissions is coming. This is the case with any metric in a world with an increasing population. Per capita measures will peak first, then it’s a tug-of-war over whether our impacts per person will fall more quickly than the population is growing.

We are very close. Emissions increased rapidly in the 1960s and 70s, then again in the 1990s and early 2000s. But in recent years, this growth has slowed down a lot. Emissions barely increased at all from 2018 to 2019. And they actually fell in 2020 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. I’m optimistic we can peak global emissions in the 2020s.

One of the simple things that brings me the most joy in life is getting an email from my grandma. My gran is in her mid-80s and can almost work an iPad. By “work”, I mean do the basics of looking at a photograph and sending an email. She doesn’t have an iPhone, a laptop or a smartwatch. My grandpa rejects all modern technology, except television. Their life is very similar to how it was a few decades ago.

This has created something of a divide between the generations on climate change. Many see the lifestyles of youngsters as the problem. We spend all day on energy-guzzling gadgets. We flock to dense cities with no gardens or green space. We buy lots of stuff and don’t bother to repair it. We never ration food and waste too much of it.

Climate activists protest against fossil fuels at Cop28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 12 December 2023.
Climate activists protest against fossil fuels at Cop28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 12 December 2023. Photograph: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

Yet my carbon footprint is less than half that of my grandparents’ when they were my age. When my grandparents were in their 20s, the average person in the UK emitted 11 tonnes of CO2 per year. We now emit less than five tonnes. The gap between me and my parents is equally wide. From the 1950s to the 90s, emissions in the UK changed very little. It’s only since then – in my lifetime – that emissions have plummeted.

Technology has made that possible. In 1900, nearly all of the UK’s energy came from coal and, by 1950, it was still supplying more than 90%. Now coal supplies less than 2% of our electricity, and the government has pledged to phase it out completely by 2025. Coal is now almost dead in its birthplace, where it all began. It has been replaced with other sources of energy: gas, then nuclear, and now a transition to wind, solar and other renewable sources.

That means that, for every unit of energy we consume, we emit much less CO2. But that’s not the only change. We also use much less energy overall. Per capita energy use has fallen by around 25% since the 1960s. Year after year, more efficient gadgets have come into our lives. First, it was improvements in the energy ratings of white goods, then it was the trend of replacing inefficient lightbulbs. Then it was double-glazed windows and home insulation to stop heat leaking out into the street. When I was a kid, our family television – we “only” had one – was a massive box that seemed to be two metres deep. The screen was so small you had to sit really close to see anything. Our car was a gas guzzler. Not a gas guzzler like we see with SUVs today. My parents would never have bought one of those. No, our car was secondhand and it was a “banger”. It was inefficient: you could hear the engine roar and feel it overheating. The miles per gallon were terrible.

These massive strides in technology mean that we use much less energy than we did in the past, despite appearing to lead much more extravagant, energy-intensive lifestyles. The notion that we need to be frugal to live a low-carbon life is simply wrong. In the UK, we now emit about the same as someone in the 1850s. I emit the same as my great-great-great-grandparents. And I have a much, much higher standard of living.

Yet very few people know that emissions are falling. The climate scientist Jonathan Foley recently polled his followers on Twitter [now X]. He asked what had happened to emissions in the US over the past 15 years. Had they:

a) Increased by more than 20%
b) Increased by 10%
c) Stayed the same
d) Fallen by 20%

Thousands of people answered. Two-thirds of people picked a) or b). Just 19% picked the correct answer d). No wonder people think we’re screwed.

We have a habit of underestimating how quickly things can change. Most of us have been too pessimistic about renewable energy in the past, even the experts. Part of the reason I thought that 2C was so far out of reach was that I couldn’t see how low-carbon energy could grow quickly enough.

In just a decade between 2009 and 2019, solar photovoltaic and wind energy went from the most to the least expensive source. The price of electricity from solar has declined by 89%, and the price of onshore wind has declined by 70%. They are now cheaper than coal. Leaders no longer have to make the difficult choice between climate action and providing energy for their people. The low-carbon choice has suddenly become the economic one. It’s staggering how quickly this change has happened.

Poorer countries do not have to follow the fossil fuel-heavy and unsustainable trajectories that rich countries did. They can leapfrog the centuries-long journey that we’ve taken. And they don’t have to sacrifice human wellbeing or access to energy. In fact, by adopting these technologies they can ensure that even more people have access to affordable energy.

The huge progress being made in developing affordable low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels is just one counter to the doomsday thinking of so much of the climate change conversation. It has become too common to tell kids that they’re going to die from climate change. If a heatwave doesn’t get them, then a wildfire will. Or a hurricane, a flood or mass starvation. There is an intense feeling of anxiety and dread among young people about what the planet has in store for us.

In my book, I look at realistic ways we can adapt the fields of energy, transport, food and construction to rein in climate change while improving human wellbeing at the same time. If we take several steps back, we can see something truly radical, gamechanging and life-giving: humanity is in a truly unique position to build a sustainable world. Another reason some climate scientists are less pessimistic is that they believe that things can change. The past few decades have been an uphill battle for them. They’ve been mostly ignored. Often they were the ones framed as apocalyptic scaremongers. But, finally, the world has woken up to the reality of climate change and people are taking action. The climate scientists know change is possible because they’ve seen it happen. Against the odds, they’ve driven much of it.

  • This is an edited extract from Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet by Hannah Ritchie, which will be published by Chatto & Windus on 11 January (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply


This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.