‘Hopeless and broken’: why the world’s top climate scientists are in despair

The climate emergency is already here. Even just 1˚C of heating has supercharged the planet’s extreme weather, delivering searing heatwaves from the US to Europe to China that would have been otherwise impossible. Millions of people have very likely died early as a result already. At just 2˚C, the brutal heatwave that struck the Pacific north-west of America in 2021 will be 100-200 times more likely.

But a world that is hotter by 2.5˚C, 3˚C, or worse, as most of the experts anticipate, takes us into truly uncharted territory. It is hard to fully map this new world. Our intricately connected global society means the impact of climate shocks in one place can cascade around the world, through food price spikes, broken supply chains, and migration.

With 3˚C of global heating, cities including Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, Miami and The Hague end up below sea level.

An exclusive Guardian survey of hundreds of the world’s leading climate experts has found that:

  • 77% of respondents believe global temperatures will reach at least 2.5˚C above pre-industrial levels, a devastating degree of heating;
  • almost half – 42% – think it will be more than 3˚C;
  • only 6% think the 1.5˚C limit will be achieved.

“I find it infuriating, distressing, overwhelming,” said one expert, who chose not to be named. “I’m relieved that I do not have children, knowing what the future holds,” said another.

Their overwhelming feelings were fear and frustration. “I expect a semi-dystopian future with substantial pain and suffering for the people of the global south,” said a South African scientist who chose not to be named. “The world’s response to date is reprehensible – we live in an age of fools.”

“I think 3˚C is being hopeful and conservative. 1.5˚C is already bad, but I don’t think there is any way we are going to stick to that. There is not any clear sign from any government that we are actually going to stay under 1.5˚C.”

Cerezo-Mota, an expert in climate modelling at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

“1.5C is a political game – we were never going to reach this target.”

Jonathan Cullen, at the University of Cambridge

“It is the biggest threat humanity has faced, with the potential to wreck our social fabric and way of life. It has the potential to kill millions, if not billions, through starvation, war over resources, displacement,” “None of us will be unaffected by the devastation.”

James Renwick, at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

“The enormity of the problem is not well understood,” “So there will be environmental refugees by the millions, extreme weather events escalating, food and water shortages, before the majority accept the urgency in reducing emissions – by which time it will be too late.”

Ralph Sims, at Massey University in New Zealand.

“I feel resigned to disaster as we cannot separate our love of bigger, better, faster, more, from what will help the greatest number of people survive and thrive,” “Capitalism has trained us well.”

A US scientist.

“It is getting cheaper and cheaper to save the climate,”

Lars Nilsson, at Lund University in Sweden.

“It opens exciting possibilities: by having to live with climate change, we can adapt in ways that bring us to a more inclusive and equitable way of living.”

Mark Pelling, at University College London

“The good news is the worst-case scenario is avoidable,” “We still have it in our hands to build a future that is much more benign climatically than the one we are currently on track for.” “our societies will be forced to change and the suffering and damage to lives and livelihoods will be severe”.

Michael Meredith, at the British Antarctic Survey.