The bombshell climate change report published Monday by hundreds of the top global climate scientists issued a dire warning that climate disasters will grow dramatically worse unless the world rapidly slashes greenhouse gas emissions.
While governments continue to tinker around the edges with their climate ambition, the science emphatically demands a much more transformational change to energy systems, including a rapid phaseout of fossil fuel production and consumption.
Climate crisis unfolding, 1.5-degree threshold nearing
Global scientists issued the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of their landmark report, an update from the previous edition seven years ago. The first tranche (Working Group I) was published on Monday, distilling the sum total of the best physical science of climate change. Other reports (Working Groups II and III) on adaptation and mitigation will be coming out in early 2022. This latest issue covers just the climate science.
The main takeaway is mostly nothing new – CO2 and methane pumped into the atmosphere is warming the planet and destabilizing the climate. But the trends are worsening and accelerating, and the warnings are firmer and more calamitous.
“Each of the last four decades has been successively warmer than any decade that preceded it since 1850.”
“Each of the last four decades has been successively warmer than any decade that preceded it since 1850,” the report said. In fact, the planet is now warming at a rate that “is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years,” and the planet is already likely warmer than it has been in any point in the past 125,000 years.
The report said that the world is on track to blow past 1.5-degrees Celsius (2.7-Fahrenheit) of warming as soon as the early 2030s, about a decade earlier than previously thought.
“Unless we make immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to 1.5C will be beyond reach,” said Ko Barrett, vice chair of the IPCC.
Whereas previous IPCC reports warned of future disasters unless the world altered the emissions trajectory, the latest report drops at a time when global climate disasters are suddenly very vivid and impossible to ignore. Obviously, climate change was “happening” when past warnings were issued by global scientists, but the disasters are already frightening in their increasing frequency and severity. And that is only with about 1 degree Celsius of warming currently.
Wildfires have swept across the American West, Canada, Greece, Siberia, and elsewhere. Intense heat waves have occurred on multiple continents. Record floods have devastated China and Europe. And those disasters all occurred in the last month or two. (I write this from the Pacific Northwest, where temperatures are expected to top 106 Fahrenheit this week in what will surely be another deadly heat event).
Warming to 2 degrees Celsius could set off tipping points, such as the collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet, which will lead to much higher sea level rise. Heat waves grow more frequent and intense, as do other disasters. We knew much of this before, but the warnings are growing louder and more urgent, and arguably feel different given the disasters unfolding in real time. As many others have observed, climate change is here.
“Each bit of warming will intensify the impacts we are likely to see,” Ko Barrett of the IPCC said.
Fossil fuel phaseout
Just as every fraction of degree of warming leads us down a more disastrous path, each fraction of a degree of warming averted because of climate action heads off a bit of suffering.
It is on this note that the IPCC report offers some optimism. It is not all helpless doom and gloom. The path forward is daunting, but the work is clear.
“This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet.”
“This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday, calling the warning a “code red for humanity.”
The conclusion was stark, although shouldn’t be surprising to anyone paying attention. “Countries should also end all new fossil fuel exploration and production, and shift fossil fuel subsidies into renewable energy,” Guterres said.
While many of the disaster scenarios that await us from a business-as-usual pathway are irreversible – sea level rise, the collapse of ice sheets, ocean acidification – there is also a big payoff if the energy transition accelerates at lightning speed.
That is, the science suggests that warming will slow to a crawl or even halt if emissions are brought down close to net-zero. That is a really hopeful outlook given that some of the more dire predictions in years past have suggested that runaway warming is unstoppable. Such thinking tends to result in apathy and nihilism.
“We can be very certain that near-term reduction [in emissions] can really reduce the rates of unprecedented warming,” Piers Forster, a professor at the University of Leeds and a contributor to the IPCC report said at a press briefing. “And the other big news is that the report does really show – scientifically and robustly – that net-zero does work for stabilising or even reducing surface temperatures.”
Many governments pledge fealty the climate science, but very few are doing what the science demands.
Of course, heading into the next international climate talks in Glasgow later this year, many governments are far behind. Rhetorically, they pledge fealty the climate science, but very few are doing what the science demands, which is a rapid reduction in the combustion of fossil fuels and shrinking the industry as fast as possible while scaling up renewables, mass transit, rail, and electric vehicles (not to mention slashing other sources of emissions). Methane, in particular, should be an immediate focus.
“Climate change has arrived, in other words, and it will keep getting worse until humanity reduces its greenhouse-gas pollution to zero, which can be accomplished only by dethroning oil, coal, and gas as the central energy sources powering the global economy,” as Robinson Meyer of the Atlantic put it.
But that requires confronting oil, gas and coal giants, and making very politically difficult decisions to not just tinker with climate policy, tighten up regulations on drilling and mining, and spend a bit more on renewables. Economic and societal transformation across nearly every sector of the global economy is needed.