The United Nations offered a reality check this week to the planet — in the form of 4,000 pages.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, released its sixth assessment report, sounding the alarm on the climate crisis's imminent risks to humanity.
There’s no use sugarcoating it: the report’s findings are urgently dire. They spell bad news for the frequency of extreme weather events — and their devastating effect on humans — now, and in the months and years ahead.
It’s no joking matter: “This report is a reality check,” said Valérie Masson-Delmotte, a co-chair of the panel, in a press release.
The behemoth report surfaces dozens of data points about human-caused climate change, ranging from the loss of ice sheets in Antarctica to increasingly large cyclones on the East Eoast of the United States. Scientists from more than 60 countries reviewed more than 14,000 peer-reviewed studies in collecting their findings.
With so much information, it’s easy to become overwhelmed, but a few key facts stand out you should know. Here are the top 3:
3) The extreme weather of the last few years is very much because of humans:
The IPCC experts conclude that extreme weather events have become more likely and more intense, largely due to “human influence on the climate.” Politicians who push back against scientific evidence have long proposed that the increased number of wildfires and hurricanes and flooding is part of a natural cycle. This just isn’t true. It’s because of a hotter, drier global climate caused by CO2 emissions.
“There are no more hurricanes today than there were 100 years ago,” said then-Vice President Mike Pence during an election debate in October 2020. While that’s difficult to track, what’s not is how those hurricanes are larger, move slower, and ultimately more destructive. With those stronger winds come more storm surges that destroy coasts.
Previously, scientists and environmental groups like the EPA believed that climate change would likely make extreme weather events more common, but the UN report offers definitive proof linking human activity to a greater frequency and severity of extreme weather events like flooding and drought. Some of these changes — melting glaciers, for instance — are irreversible.
“Many of the changes observed in the climate are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years,” state the report’s authors.
2) We are undeniably making the globe hotter. Here’s why:
We’ve made the global temperature 1.1 degrees Celsius (1.98 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter since 1850, when the world began moving from agrarian societies to industrial economies. It’s a small amount if you’re thinking about your backyard. It’s a literally world-changing number if you consider the global scale.
Scientists have long referred to an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as a tipping point.
World leaders joined forces during the 2015 Paris Agreement with the goal of ensuring global temperatures do not exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius — but it’s likely too late.
IPCC experts conclude global warming will “reach or exceed 1.5°C of warming,” over the next 20 years, putting those serious climate risks in our immediate future.
We’ll almost certainly exceed the next climate tipping point — an increase of 2 degrees Celsius — unless we enact “immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions” over the next few decades.
The IPCC also created an interactive atlas, allowing individuals to see all “possible climate futures” if we exceed 1.5, 2, 3, and even 4 degrees Celsius.
There’s a big difference between each of those temperature benchmarks. “For 1.5°C of global warming, there will be increasing heat waves, longer warm seasons, and shorter cold seasons,” write the report authors.
Once you hit 2 degrees Celsius, heat extremes will have even more dangerous implications for human health and the survival of our agricultural systems, which are vulnerable to drought. Drought also increases the likelihood of forest fires, which have grown more severe this summer.
Across all emissions scenarios, global temperatures will continue to increase until 2050, based on greenhouse gas emissions already in the atmosphere.
1) We can still do something to slow the planet’s rising temperature. Here’s how:
All hope is not lost. There are two big-picture things that must happen, though:
- Strong, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions
- Reaching net-zero carbon dioxide emissions
The report's authors address some of the more commonly proposed ideas to curb global warming. They’re not necessarily big fans of solar radiation management (SRM), also known as solar geoengineering, which proposes artificially reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches Earth. (“There would likely be substantial regional and seasonal trade-offs as the effects of SRM are not uniform.”)
Instead, the report's authors recommend other methods that can rapidly reduce emissions to net-zero by 2050:
The report calls for these methods of carbon capture (removing CO2 from the atmosphere):
- Reforesting existing forests or growing new ones
- Managing soil carbon
- Direct air capture/ carbon capture and storage technologies
- Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage
Finally, the report suggests that all greenhouse gases are not created equal. The experts state that short-term measures to reduce methane — a potent greenhouse gas with more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period — “can simultaneously reduce warming effects and adverse effects on air quality.”
The report suggests that curbing methane emissions may be the most immediate way to curb the impact of global warming.
The Inverse analysis — As Linda O. Mearns, a co-author on the report and senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said: “I used to say, when I was talking about climate change, that climate change is serious, certain, and soon. But this is no longer accurate.
“Now it is very serious, very certain, and now.”
There is a glimmer of hope as world leaders plan to convene this fall at the UN’s climate change conference (COP26) in Scotland. Report authors urge that we still can steer humanity back on track if we leaders across the globe implement measures and technologies to reduce emissions as soon as possible. We can’t afford to wait.