On Monday, August 9th, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a damning report on the state of our global climate. The report is the sixth of its kind since the IPCC’s creation in 1988 and the first to declare that the human impact on global warming is “unequivocal.” While its authors note that there is still time to avoid catastrophic warming and “unprecedented” weather events in the coming decade, the report makes clear that time is quickly running out.
The report, which was authored by over 200 leading climate scientists and draws on the work of over 14,000 research papers, paints a bleak picture of the climate’s current trajectory. Across the board, climate indicators are hitting dangerous milestones: global surface temperature has increased more since 1970 than during any other 50-year period in 2,000 years, global sea levels have risen faster since 1900 than during any other century in 3,000 years, and the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher than at any time in 2 million years.
United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres said the report was nothing short of a “code red for humanity.” “The alarm bells are deafening,” he added, “and the evidence is irrefutable.” Indeed, the floods, droughts, heatwaves, and wildfires that have plagued much of the Western hemisphere this summer are a harrowing preview of what lies ahead. According to the report, there is no longer any way to stop things from getting worse for at least the next 30 years. Given the time lag between human emissions and environmental impacts, a more volatile climate is now essentially locked in until the middle of the century. One question remains: what next?
For starters, political leaders are eager to know whether the goals set by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement are still in reach. The Paris Agreement sought to limit global warming below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels; its ideal target was 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Beyond 1.5 degrees, the dangers grow considerably, as billions of more people would be affected by water shortages and life-threatening heat waves. The jump from 1.5 to 2 degrees is no less momentous. That half of a degree would mark the disappearance of the coral reefs and Arctic summer ice, explains the New York Times.
The problem is that most of the world’s largest economies remain over-reliant on fossil fuels and are not on track to reach these targets. In fact, the Earth is already 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels. The report presents five theoretical scenarios of varying fossil fuel emissions rates, population and economic growth rates, and degrees of political collaboration to predict the trajectory of global warming. In all five scenarios, the planet is set to cross the 1.5-degree boundary within the next 20 years.
The new report also makes clear that it is not too late to curb the worst effects of global warming. But, the world stands at a critical juncture in deciding the future of the climate. If countries around the world act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately, drastically, and permanently, Earth will start getting cooler by the middle of this century, the report finds. Anything less than that could cause Earth to warm by 4 degrees or more by the end of this century.
The danger is that with each additional degree come more perilous and less predictable weather events that could send the climate irreversibly out of balance. “The more we push the climate system … the greater the odds we cross thresholds that we can only poorly project,” said report co-author Bob Kopp, a climate scientist at Rutgers University. As predictions become harder to make, inadequate preparation will cause human and economic losses to grow spectacularly.
The UN is set to release another report in 2022 detailing how climate change may affect aspects of human society. For now, the current report makes clear that the effects of climate change will be felt globally. For the first time, projections were broken down by region, which makes things much easier for local policymakers looking to the report for guidance. The report’s authors hope that these projections will be the focal point of the major climate conference between world leaders in November. One thing is certain: there is no time to waste.
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