National governments haven’t done nearly enough to stop global warming in the seven years since they signed the Paris Climate Agreement, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in a major report released on Monday.
As a result, the world is running out of options to defuse the “ticking climate time bomb,” United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said, describing the report as an urgent call for leaders to decarbonize developed countries by 2040, and developing countries by 2050.
The new report shows that “the 1.5-degree limit is achievable … But it will take a quantum leap in climate action,” he said. “In short, our world needs climate action on all fronts—everything, everywhere, all at once.”
The IPCC’s affirmation of the 1.5 degree Celsius target is important in the context of recent studies and news reports suggesting that it’s already too late. But every additional increment of warming will amplify impacts that already threaten the lives and livelihoods of millions worldwide, the report concludes.
It cites evidence that global warming drives extreme and deadly climate disasters like “heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones,” the international science panel wrote.
The 6th Assessment Report (AR6) punctuates a periodic cycle of climate science reviews by the IPCC, which was tasked by national governments in 1988 to deliver regular science updates to guide ongoing global climate talks under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
The report released today was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic and marks the first full update since 2014, when the 5th Assessment Report (AR5) was published in time to provide a scientific framework for the Paris Agreement, under which 196 countries agreed to cut emissions in an effort to avert global climate mayhem.
The IPCC’s work is ongoing, with teams of hundreds of scientists, mostly volunteers, analyzing thousands of peer-reviewed climate science studies and organizing the information in a way intended to be relevant to societies and governments.
Climate 101: What is the IPCC and What Does It Do?
Each cycle includes three major reports. The first covers physical science, which shows what causes global warming and how it drives ice melt, sea level rise, droughts, heatwaves and wildfires. The second report shows how that affects people, plants, animals and water and food supply, as well as which areas are most vulnerable, and how to adapt. The third report in each cycle focuses on mitigation, which means how to make it stop.
The panel also issues special updates. In the most recent cycle, a 2018 report on the impacts of exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius warming galvanized a global civic climate movement that repeatedly brought millions to street protests worldwide, as people tried to hold governments accountable.
All the raw science is distilled into a 40-page Summary for Policy Makers, which will be the new scientific basis for future climate negotiations, starting at the Bonn Climate Change Conference in June as well as COP28 in Dubai in November.
The key message remains the same, but the urgency is greater because greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase since the last round of reports, all but ensuring that the average global temperature will exceed the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit at least temporarily in the next few years.
The report shows that preventing Earth’s fever from staying above that level and from climbing even higher requires drastic cuts in emissions from fossil fuels, Greenpeace climate expert Kaisa Kosonen said after her early review of the new report.
“The fossil fuel reduction numbers have been hidden in many brackets and assumptions,” she said. “But what you can conclude is that, in pathways that limit warming to 1.5 degree C … the global use of coal is projected to decline by up to 100 percent, oil by up to 90 percent, and gas by up to 85 percent by 2050.”
Connecting Science and Policy Is Hard
Lack of progress toward those cuts since the Paris Agreement isn’t stymied by the science, said John Furlow, director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at the Columbia Climate School. “The failure to achieve many of the climate goals the world has set for itself are political and economic,” he said.
Furlow said science was clear even before the UNFCCC was created. The thinking early on, he said, was that “this would be a fairly easy problem to solve. We had just solved it for acid rain and for ozone-depleting chemicals, and when you read the original UN Convention on Climate Change, well, it’s long and wordy, but the thought was, ‘We got this.’”
The problems start when science meets politics, said Walther Baethgen, a senior research scientist also with the Columbia Climate School’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society.
The IPCC assessments “produce the best science possible, but the question is what do people do with that information,” Baethgen said. But even the summary documents are so complex that government policy experts have to translate the information “into something that is actionable that can inform policy.”
“But to be honest, today, I don’t feel very optimistic,” he said. “You have a Biden administration that seems to be very conscious about working against climate change, but then, again, you have a war, and the United States is making billions of dollars exporting energy to Europe.”
Meanwhile, climate impacts are multiplying, he added, describing the trail of destruction in parts of eastern Africa in just the last few weeks caused by the unusually persistent and powerful Tropical Typhoon Freddy. The new report “shows that human induced climate change is increasing the frequency and the intensity of these extreme events, which are really affecting people and society’s production systems,” he said.
Furlow also said he doesn’t see it as an abstract problem.
“As we keep blowing through these goals, I think the real question is, do you want more and more summers like last summer, where things are on fire or washing away?” he said.
Reports Too Infrequent, ‘Overly Conservative’
Even before the IPCC’s latest assessment cycle was complete, new studies on the Arctic, oceans and tropical rainforests suggested that climate impacts are becoming more frequent and intensifying “faster than projected” by the IPCC, leading to concerns that the reports don’t adequately reflect the growing risks.
Atmospheric scientist Kevin Trenberth, with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, and an honorary academic at Auckland University in New Zealand, said the process of conveying important science information to governments could be improved, perhaps by moving away from a volunteer-based effort to “one with a stronger, more permanent base.”
“I suggested quite some time ago, after the IPCC’s last major report in 2014, that it was time to move on to … yearly, if not quarterly updates,” he said, “because we already knew that humans were changing the climate. The key issues for me are, what is happening, why is it happening, and what does it mean for the future, and then what can we do about it.”
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Climate scientist Michael Mann, director of the Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media and the University of Pennsylvania, said many IPCC projections have, in fact, been “accurate and even prescient,” especially concerning overall average planetary warming.
“However,” he said, “when it comes to certain important consequences of the warming, including ice sheet collapse, sea level rise, and the rise in extreme weather events, the reports in my view have been overly conservative, in substantial part because of processes that are imperfectly represented in the models.”
‘We Don’t Get There Without Love’
But even if some of the individual predictions are off, the report captures the dire state of the planet’s climate, concluding that “rapid and far-reaching transitions are necessary to achieve deep and sustained emissions reductions and secure a livable and sustainable future for all.”
The question remains how to act on those findings, and the answer may not be simply to do more of the same science, said Heidi Steltzer, an ecologist and mountain climate researcher at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, who was a lead author of a mountain chapter in the IPCC’s 2019 report on the oceans and cryosphere.
“More reports aren’t going to do it. We’ve already done that,” she said. Reaching global climate goals may require a transformational vision of science that starts to consider values, like love and hope, because they aren’t easily measured, she added. The IPCC calls for dramatic societal transformations in the way we eat, work and move about, and science isn’t excluded from those changes.
Whatever goals the world sets, “we don’t get there without love,” she said. “We can’t get to 1.5 C or whatever target we set without love for ourselves, without knowing ourselves, and without connecting to, and caring for one another, our planet, and the universe.”
She said the IPCC does an “incredible job” with the material world that can be seen and measured. But, she asked, “what is the next step that connects this to the quantum and virtual worlds, the ones in our hearts and souls, where we can experience and know that which can’t be measured?”
That includes hope, which she said is likely another key ingredient to sparking societal changes.
“The hope for something different is in that space of the quantum and the virtual, because how do we quantify hope?” she said. “Hope is in the grassroots activism that we see taking place across our planet. So then I think, where and how can the IPCC better support grassroots activism? Because that’s the space for the hope and the love and the building community that needs to take place.”
People won’t come together by telling the worst of what can be. Humans have thrived because of their ability to work together to solve problems, she said.
“It’s telling the stories of how we, as a species, managed for crises in the past,” she said. “We find solutions by coming together and finding space for understanding, and not for numbers and data. Creating space for, and attention to, compassion matters more.”