Our 10 Most Terrifying Facts About Climate Change

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Andy Dowds

Andy Dowds


One night, in the year before we launched Alter Eco, when we were at the very start of just trying to get the business off the ground, there was a night I remember where the four of us were discussing which fact about climate change scared us the most. It was like sharing ghost stories around a campfire, except these stories were real and happening in front of our eyes. Here’s the top ten facts that I can remember (with a little help from Google) from that night.  

1. 1 in 5 deaths are caused by air pollution from fossil fuels

New research from Harvard University, in collaboration with the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester and University College London, found that more than 8 million people died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution, significantly higher than previous research suggested—meaning that air pollution from burning fossil fuels like coal and diesel was responsible for about 1 in 5 deaths worldwide.

 The study, “Global Mortality From Outdoor Fine Particle Pollution Generated by Fossil Fuel Combustion”, published in Environmental Research, is based on a groundbreaking analysis that enabled the researchers to directly attribute premature deaths from fine particulate pollution (PM 2.5) to fossil fuel combustion.

 “Often, when we discuss the dangers of fossil fuel combustion, it’s in the context of CO2 and climate change and overlook the potential health impact of the pollutants co-emitted with greenhouse gases,” said Dr. Joel Schwartz, Professor at Harvard Chan School and co-author of the study. “We hope that by quantifying the health consequences of fossil fuel combustion, we can send a clear message to policymakers and stakeholders of the benefits of a transition to alternative energy sources.”

 The findings underscore the detrimental impact of fossil fuels on global health.

 “The health gains we can achieve from getting off fossil fuels is twice what we thought it was yesterday,” said Dr. Aaron Bernstein, Director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard Chan School. “The Global Burden of Disease study estimated deaths from fossil fuels numbered 4.2 million in 2015, but thanks to more rigorous science, we can now see that fossil fuels cause far more harm than previously understood. Now more than ever we can see the healthier, more just and sustainable world that climate actions can deliver.”

Key Takeaways

  • Worldwide, air pollution from burning fossil fuels is responsible for about 1 in 5 deaths—roughly the population of New York City.
  • In the US, 350,000 premature deaths are attributed to fossil fuel pollution. 
  • Transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy has immediate health benefits, including preventing premature deaths attributed to fossil fuel pollution.
  • Exposure to particulate matter from fossil fuels accounted for 21.5% of total deaths in 2012, falling to 18% in 2018 due to tightening air quality measures in China. 


  • In India, fossil fuel pollution was responsible for the deaths of nearly 2.5 million people (aged over 14) in 2018; representing over 30% of total deaths in India among people over age 14. 


  • Thousands of children under age 5 die each year due to respiratory infections attributed to fossil fuel pollution. 

2. One million species of plants and animals face extinction

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) recently released another landmark report. Compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors, the report is the most comprehensive planetary health-check of its kind, having examined changes to the natural world over the past five decades.

The IPES is an international team of scientists, backed by the UN, and they’re report proves beyond any doubt that communities all around the world are likely to face dire consequences as ecosystems decline faster and faster.

 They estimate that around one million animals and plants are threatened with extinction – more than ever before in human history. More than 40% of amphibian species, about 33% of reef-forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened.

 And it is humanity that is to blame, as about 75% of environments on land have been significantly altered by human actions, plus roughly 66% of the marine environment.

 The worst driver of change is changes in land and sea use, followed by the direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution and invasive species.

 More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production, which reduces the Earth’s wild places and squeezes out native species.

 The value of agricultural crop production has also increased by about 300% since 1970. Raw timber harvest has risen by 45%. Approximately 60 billion tons of resources are now extracted from the Earth every year – having nearly doubled since 1980.

 The ocean has fared no better. In 2015, 33% of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels. Fertilisers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean ‘dead zones’. 

3. The worst impacts of climate change could be irreversible by 2030

In its 2018 special report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that we only had twelve years to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. It’s now 2021— leaving us just under a decade to halve our emissions to avert the worst climate impacts— yet little has changed regarding our release of greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.N. climate report and subsequent reports have warned us that global carbon pollution must be cut in half in the next 9 years for us to avoid catastrophic, irreversible damage to our planet. And yet we’re going in the opposite direction. 

The effects on the environment by 2030 are terrifying. The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development reports that by 2030: 

  • We will experience increased heat waves, droughts, storms and floods, resulting in severe damage to key infrastructure and crops.


  • Food and biofuel production together will require a 10% increase in farmland worldwide with a further loss of wildlife habitat. Continued loss of biodiversity is likely to limit the Earth’s capacity to provide the valuable ecosystem services that support economic growth and human well-being.


  • Water scarcity will worsen due to unsustainable use and management of the resource as well as climate change; the number of people living in areas affected by severe water stress is expected to increase by another 1 billion to over 3.9 billion.


  • Health impacts of air pollution will increase worldwide, with the number of premature deaths linked to ground-level ozone quadrupling (Figure 6) and those linked to particulate matter more than doubling. Chemical production volumes in non-OECD countries are rapidly increasing, and there is insufficient information to fully assess the risks of chemicals in the environment and in products.

4. At our current rate of fishing, the oceans will be empty by 2048.

The eye opening report, “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services”, states that If fishing around the world continues at its present pace, more and more species will vanish, marine ecosystems will unravel and there will be “global collapse” of all species currently fished, possibly as soon as mid century. 

The scientists behind the report, led by the deeply respected Dr. Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, analysed data on fish and invertebrate catches from 1950 to 2003 within all 64 large marine ecosystems worldwide. Collectively, these areas produced 83 percent of global fisheries yields over the past 50 years. 

Dr. Worm said he analyzed the data for the first time on his laptop while he was overseeing a roomful of students taking an exam. What he saw, he said, was “just a smooth line going down.” And when he extrapolated the data into the future “to see where it ends at 100 percent collapse, you arrive at 2048.”

“The hair stood up on the back of my neck and I said, ‘This cannot be true,’ ” he recalled. He said he ran the data through his computer again, then did the calculations by hand. The results were the same.

“I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t know what the future will bring, but this is a clear trend,” he said. “There is an end in sight, and it is within our lifetimes.” 

5. The world is losing an area of forest the size of the UK every year.

The Global Forest Watch project – using satellite imagery – estimates that global tree loss in 2019 was 24 million hectares. That’s 15 billion trees and an area the size of the United Kingdom. 

 Charlotte Streck, a co-founder and the director of Climate Focus, the thinktank behind the report, said: “We need to keep our trees and we need to restore our forests. Deforestation has accelerated, despite the pledges that have been made.”

 The New York declaration on forests was signed at the UN in 2014, requiring countries to halve deforestation by 2020 and restore 150m hectares of deforested or degraded forest land.

 But the rate of tree cover loss has gone up by 43% since the declaration was adopted, while the most valuable and irreplaceable tropical primary forests have been cut down at a rate of 4.3m hectares a year.

 The ultimate goal of the declaration, to halt deforestation by 2030 – potentially saving as much carbon as taking all the world’s cars off the roads – now looks further away than when the commitment was made.

6. Farming livestock accounts for 51% of all worldwide, human- caused greenhouse gas emissions.

In their report, “What if the key actors in climate change are cows, pigs and chickens?”, the highly respected thinktank, the Worldwatch Institute, reported that emissions from farming livestock account for 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

In the 19-page report, Robert Goodland, a former lead environmental adviser to the World Bank, and Jeff Anhang, a current adviser, suggest that domesticated animals cause 32 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), more than the combined impact of industry and energy. 

 Their report used a much more precise and accurate methodology, which disproved the previously accepted figure of 18 per cent, taken from a landmark UN report in 2006, Livestock’s Long Shadow. 

“If this argument is right,” write Goodland and Anhang, “it implies that replacing livestock products with better alternatives would be the best strategy for reversing climate change.In fact, this approach would have far more rapid effects on greenhouse gas emissions and their atmospheric concentrations than actions to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.”

7. It takes 15135 litres (that's 27000 pints) of water to produce just 1kg of beef.

The amazing charity, the Water Footprint Network, reports this staggering fact and, to give it some perspective, it only requires 981 litres of water to produce 1kg of soybeans and only 490 litres to produce 1kg of corn. 

 The main reason so much water is required for beef is something called a “feed conversion ratio,” which tells us how quickly livestock can turn whatever grain or feed that they’re eating into mass. Some animals are pretty efficient, but cows are not so good at that. It takes a lot of grains or grasses to produce and grow these larger animals for meat. And all those grains and grasses take water to grow in turn. So the water footprint of meat is greater, because you’re using products from lower on the food chain to grow something larger. 

 The second reason for meat production’s great resource intensity is due to its immense scale. Globally, there is a projected “food animal” population of over 20 billion, more than twice that of the current seven billion humans the planet carries, with the animal count expected to rise along with human population growth. 

 Considering that meat does eat up vast amounts of resources, it seems that using it wisely (already crucial) will become even more so in the future. That’s why revealing the virtual water hidden in meat and explaining its resource-intensity matters; acknowledging the potential problems and limits can lay the groundwork for sensible, sustainable ways forward. It also suggests that as feeding the world is a primary objective, humanity might be wise to alter our current trajectory of evermore meat produced industrially at any cost.

8. Unless global water consumption is drastically reduced, severe water shortage will affect the entire planet by 2040.

“There will be no water by 2040 if we keep doing what we’re doing today”.

           – Professor Benjamin Sovacool, Aarhus University, Denmark.

 According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), drought will affect between up to 40 percent of the planet already by 2020. In India, water demand is expected to exceed available water resources by up to 50 percent by 2030.

 Reservoirs in Chennai, India’s sixth-largest city, are nearly dry right now. Last year, residents of Cape Town, South Africa narrowly avoided their own “Day Zero” water shut-off. And the year before that, Rome rationed water to conserve scarce resources.

 Through new hydrological models, the World Resources Institute found that water withdrawals globally have more than doubled since the 1960s due to growing demand – and they show no signs of slowing down. 

 These same models reveal that 17 countries – home to one-quarter of the world’s population—face “extremely high” levels of baseline water stress, where irrigated agriculture, industries and municipalities withdraw more than 80% of their available supply on average every year. Forty-four countries, home to one-third of the world, face “high” levels of stress, where on average more than 40% of available supply is withdrawn every year. (Check your country’s water stress level in the full rankings at the end of this post.) Such a narrow gap between supply and demand leaves countries vulnerable to fluctuations like droughts or increased water withdrawals, which is why we’re seeing more and more communities facing their own “Day Zeros” and other crises.

 Once-unthinkable water crises are becoming commonplace. And the most shocking thing of all is that most of the water (over 90 percent) we use isn’t even drinking water, it’s “virtual water” meaning that it is water used all over the world to produce the food and products we buy. 

9. Climate change is turning 20 million people into refugees every year.

“We need to invest now in preparedness to mitigate future protection needs and prevent further climate caused displacement. Waiting for disaster to strike is not an option.”

          – Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees

Climate change-related displacement is increasing worldwide, exacerbating global inequalities and disproportionately harming women and girls, according to a new report by the humanitarian nonprofit CARE International

 The report found that 33.4 million people were displaced from their homes in 2019, and climate change played a role in 70% of these cases. The vast majority of climate-related displacements occured in developing countries that account for less than 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

In the years ahead, scientists expect temperatures and sea levels to rise and precipitation patterns to destabilise. Heat waves, droughts, and tropical storms will get worse, undermining access to food, water, and shelter.

 In the years ahead, scientists warn that human movement across and within borders due to climate change-related events will exponentially increase. This will create new categories of migrants and refugees that strain concepts of citizenship, aid, and multilateral cooperation. And happening at a time when the very idea of migration has come under attack and refugees and asylum seekers are routinely denied safety.

10. The 20 warmest years on record have all been in the past 22 years.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has compounded the research released in the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, stating that 20 of the warmest years on record have occurred in the last 22 years.

“The long-term temperature trend is far more important than the ranking of individual years, and that trend is an upward one,” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas stated in a press release. “The degree of warming during the past four years has been exceptional, both on land and in the ocean…Many of the extreme weather events are consistent with what we expect from a changing climate. This is a reality we need to face up to. Greenhouse gas emission reduction and climate adaptation measures should be a top global priority.”

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