I didn’t want to read the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for two reasons. First, it’s technical – it’s ‘the science bit’ of the UN body’s most recent assessment. But mostly I didn’t want to read it because I knew it would be scary, and not just hide-behind-the-sofa-scary, rather proper, “Code Red for Humanity”, existential-collapse-scary.
But eventually, I did read it and, yes; it was just as terrifying as I had anticipated. But, to my surprise, it was also encouraging and strangely liberating. So if, like me, you can’t bring yourself to look at the report just yet, read on for the lowlights and – unlikely as it may seem – a message of hope.
What is the IPCC report?
The IPCC is currently in its Sixth Assessment Cycle. The report published earlier this month is Working Group I’s contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) and presents the ‘Physical Science Basis’ of climate change.
Ultimately, AR6 will include reports from two further working groups, on the impacts of climate change (due in early 2022) and how to mitigate climate change (due in autumn 2022).
What does the report say?
Much as I’d expected, the report doesn’t make for easy reading in any sense of the word. In short, it presents the science of climate change as we know it, summarises the specific environmental effects of climate change thus far, and presents scenarios on how things might go in the future.
Most importantly, it states that “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land”. Humans have caused a rise in global surface temperature of over 1ºC since 1850, and that rise in temperature has (already) resulted in a rise in sea levels, the acidification of the oceans, and the increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.
After a rundown of our transgressions to date, the IPCC goes on to model five different scenarios for our future, depending on levels of climate change mitigation as well as a number of socio-economic assumptions.
Scenario 1 is something of a pipedream – it would only be achievable if, tomorrow, we started running our cars on unicorn farts. Scenario 2 is aligned with the requirement of the Paris Climate Agreement to keep the global temperature increase to less than 2ºC. Scenarios 4 and 5 are the hell-and-damnation options, in which we fail to cooperate and instead do the bare minimum to reduce (or even increase) CO2 emissions, and in which we see global warming of up to 6ºC. Unlike scenario 1, these scenarios are not out of the question.
Under every one of the scenarios, global surface temperatures will continue to increase until at least 2050. The report adds that, without “deep reductions in CO2”, by the end of the century, global warming will exceed 2ºC. The last time a global temperature increase of 2.5ºC was sustained was 3 million years ago. For context, that’s a million years before Homo went erectus.
The report then illustrates how different increases in global temperature affect different regions to different extents – that’s to say, a 2ºC rise in global warming would generate a mean increase of 3ºC in the Pacific Northwest, a region that has already seen record temperatures this year, and a greater than 6ºC increase in the Arctic.
Meanwhile, with that same 2ºC rise in global warming, incidents of extreme heat, which would naturally have occurred every 50 years or so, will occur every three or four years and be more intense. Likewise, incidents of heavy rain will occur twice as often and be 14% wetter. That information is of particular poignancy in central Europe, where more than 300 people died last month in some of the most extreme flooding in living memory.
Clarification of the regional impacts of the global system is a particular strength of the report. You can frighten yourself even more by playing with the IPCC’s interactive map to see how different variables might affect different regions. This tool makes it starkly clear that nowhere on Earth is immune to climate change, and that life as we have enjoyed it is changing irrevocably.
Finally, there is some good news! The five scenarios presented illustrate that humanity still has the power to influence how bad climate change will become. Furthermore, with a sustained period of net negative CO2 emissions, we could, eventually, reduce the global temperature (though many of the impacts of global warming cannot be undone for at least several millennia). Whether this is feasible is clearly moot, but it’s an important reminder that all is not lost, even at this juncture.
Why is this report different?
Firstly, this report is irrefutable documentation of the progress and potential of climate change. It’s confirmation of the scientific consensus, of what most of us knew but were reluctant to admit and what vested interests have been trying to explain away. In this report, there’s nowhere left to hide – not behind the sofa and not behind the quirks of the Holocene. Bearing in the mind that the report had to be signed off by the world’s superpowers (and heaviest polluters), this is highly significant.
Second, this report matters in a positive way. With the five scenarios, we’re actively rejecting the idea that climate change is a binary – we’re screwed vs. we’re not screwed. Besides being excessively simplistic, this kind of all-or-nothing thinking plays into the hands of climate deniers and fossil fuel lobbyists who would prefer that we accept what’s been done and carry on regardless because we’ve nothing left to lose.
That simply isn’t true. Damage has been done and damage will continue to be done. The issue is now one of extent. This is an opportunity to stop the rot, to make peace with the fact that scenario 1 and our pristine planet are things of the past, and to acknowledge that we still have the power to tame, albeit not to prevent, climate change.
For me, this report is different because there’s a certain amount of liberation when theoretical doom becomes tangible, measurable disaster. How we go forward from here will be the subject of the IPCC’s autumn 2022 report and I, for one, won’t be hiding from it.
* OK, fine – I read the Summary for Policymakers
Weigh in! If you’ve read the report, what did you think about the five scenarios? And if you haven’t read it, what’s stopping you? What advice do you have for people on addressing climate change?