17 January 2023

Does the polar climate really matter?

Dr. Claire Huck

By Dr. Claire Huck

Does the polar climate really matter?

Polar climate will take the stage today as one of the topics at this week’s annual WEF Conference in Davos. Due to human-induced global warming, the temperatures at our north and south poles are not only increasing, they are doing so up to four times faster than the rest of the planet. The impacts of climate change will be more extreme on the Arctic and Antarctic regions, resulting in a much higher magnitude of environmental disruption.

Why are we so concerned about this disproportionate climate change in the polar regions? The polar ice sheets form a crucial part of our current environmental setup and regulation. They keep the global climate cooler by acting as large reflective surfaces for heat coming from the sun - up to 90% of the solar radiation is reflected back into space. They are drivers in global ocean circulation, providing cold dense freshwater that sinks and flows along our deep ocean basins, consequently driving warm surface currents, crucial for regulating local climates.

Ice sheets are acting as a frozen cap on vast stores of permafrost, containing 1.5 trillion metric tons of stored CO2 in the northern hemisphere alone. For comparison, we currently have a global technological capability to remove CO2 from the atmosphere at a rate of 10,000 metric tons per year (the equivalent of the annual emissions from about 1700 cars). Finally, ice sheets are storing water that would otherwise be in the ocean. Melting all the polar ice caps we currently have could raise global sea levels by well over 50 meters. Disrupting, reducing or losing the polar climate altogether has severe global consequences for us all.

So just what is going on with our climate?

Climate change is happening due to increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, which acts as a blanket, trapping heat and increasing global air temperatures. The rise in temperature disrupts atmospheric and ocean circulation patterns and ice sheet stability, which collectively drive the weather conditions we experience day-to-day. The warmer the planet gets, the more large-scale changes are set in motion in our atmosphere, oceans and ice sheets and ultimately, the more volatile and extreme the weather becomes.

Quantifying the impacts of the resulting long-term trends in climate change is complicated by a huge amount of known-unknown future risk in what are being termed ‘climate-tipping points’. Based on our scientific knowledge of historic climate change, we know that by passing thresholds such as the 1.5˚C warming point, we will transition into new climate regimes, best described as macro scale shifts in global climate and environmental setups. Macro scale changes are known to have occurred under warmer climates in the past, such as the complete disappearance of ice sheets and widespread extinctions. We use geological records of past climates as analogues for what our future planet may look like as we continue to warm.

However, the big unknown is just how fast these changes will happen and whether they can be stopped or reversed once acritical climate tipping point thresholds has been crossed. For example, if global temperatures reach 1.5˚C, or higher, we may not be able to recover the predicted macro-changes triggered at this tipping point even if we consequently reduced our CO2 levels back to pre-industrial (the baseline to which emission scenarios are calibrated). This is because glaciers and oceans respond slowly, like turning a huge ship. Once you’ve oversteered, you’re still heading port ways for some time even when all the engines are pushing to starboard. Put into polar climate terms - once the melting process of huge glaciers has passed a certain point, the ice can not be stabilized again regardless of reducing atmospheric CO2.

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A whistle-stop tour of Earth’s polar climate history

For some perspective on what these future climate regimes might be like for us, we need to revisit the past.

Our first stop on this climate tipping point journey was around 4 million years ago, which is the most recent time in Earth’s history that CO2 levels were as high as they are in the modern day. Under a prolonged time at this CO2 concentration of 450 ppm and more, the Arctic ice sheet and much of the surrounding glacial ice collapsed and melted completely, responding to the sustained increase in global temperature. Sea levels were around 5 - 8 meters higher as a result and weather patterns shifted and much of the equatorial regions became desert. To put this into context, today, roughly 400 million people live within 5 m of sea level - many of them in the poorest and most vulnerable regions of the world. Nearly 1 billion people are already experiencing drought, famine and failing crops. Remaining within 1.5˚C of warming is specifically aimed at stopping our climate system from entering this phase.

To revisit an analogous time period for our end-of-century ‘business as usual scenario’ with atmospheric CO2 levels of 800 - 1000 ppm, we have to travel back over 40 million years. At this time, global temperatures were so elevated that no ice sheets or sea ice existed anywhere on earth. Fossil pollen records show that palm trees grew in Antarctica and suggest polar temperatures in excess of 30˚C. Globally, sea levels were up to a staggering 50 meters higher than they are today. That is half the height of Big Ben in London and more than halfway up the Statue of Liberty in New York. Recent scientific research suggests that we risk pushing our climate toward this regime if we pass the tipping point of 4˚C of global warming.

Back to the present

Despite significant global efforts to remain below 1.5 ˚C of warming and reduce our CO2 emissions, we are on track for a predicted increase in global temperatures of at least 2.4˚C. Even if we meet all of our current climate commitments, our global CO2 concentration will not decrease significantly. In addition to large-scale changes in climate described above, regional climate will vary hugely. Droughts, heatwaves, wildfires, floods and storms caused USD343 bn of economic losses in 2021 - these costs will move into trillions as the intensity and distribution of extreme weather events increases under a warmer world. Existing socio-economic inequalities will continue to be exacerbated as the cost of adapting to these higher temperatures will increase exponentially. Our wildlife and natural environment, which has adapted over thousands of years to a stable climate will struggle to survive these abrupt changes.

Davos discussions

The polar climates are often described as the ‘canary in the coal mine’ of climate change. Their sensitivity to global warming is showcasing a high-speed version of the environmental impact of our actions. But they do not operate in isolation to the rest of the planet, the change that the polar climate is experiencing will cascade globally. Showcasing the intrinsic connection between accelerating polar climate change and global warming at Davos could provide a powerful narrative for the hundreds of CEO’s, leaders and experts attending (predominantly from the private sector) to convey just how vital it is to rewire our businesses and economies to remain within the 1.5˚C threshold. The costs of failure go far beyond a financial bottom line.

If leaders take anything away from the discussions at Davos, it should be this: decisions at the organizational level matter. Across every sector and industry, climate change is now being recognized as a key emerging risk. The private sector has a major role to play in pushing forward the changes we need to see on climate action. Business leaders have the opportunity now to drive real change with climate informed decision-making. The scale and speed of progress depends on overcoming a significant obstacle - access to granular, standardized, comparable climate risk data.

Organizational leaders have the power to create change with climate-informed decisions - from setting science-based targets to understanding how to allocate resources and capital to protect existing investments and assets from the impacts of climate change, finance new climate resilient projects and support the decision-making capabilities of their customers and clients.

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