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What does the new IPCC Report really tell us?

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24th Aug 2021

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 by Emilio Urteaga, Hub Culture

Earlier this month, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their 6th report outlining the latest findings on impacts of Global Warming. The report is written by 230 authors from 65 countries, setting out the current state of the climate and steps we must take to fight the climate crisis. The IPCC is the body of the United Nations (UN) that is in charge of assessing the science related to climate change and offers both a scientific report and a report labeled “Advice to Policymakers”.

The IPCC report illustrates five potential scenarios based on the results of a multitude of different measurements. These range from best to worst-case scenarios of increased average temperatures over certain time periods. Making sense of the technical side of the science behind climate change can be tricky and it’s hard to overlook some of the more dooming aspects of the report including new forecasts predicting even higher temperatures for 2050 and 2100 than what was previously anticipated. The report also heavily indicates the role humans have had and will have in affecting the climate. It also touches upon how the changing climate affects the frequency and intensity of natural disasters. While stressing the seriousness of the situation, the report does not eliminate any chance of hope for changing our current trajectory. In fact, because humans are a significant cause of climate change, we can change our behaviors to alter the effects even if damage has already been done.

Like most scientific reports, it leaves the opinionating and conjecture out and focuses on the numbers and the methodology that deliver a probability and likeliness of certain events. As most scientists can attest to, the scientific process is a long and complicated one that is filled with checks and balances to verify the accuracy of results. As a result, 100% certainty is almost impossible and the most reliable forecasts can still be wrong. Additionally, it is an ongoing process that includes many variables and different methods that are often changing with newer improvements and with changes in the environment and human behavior. 

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Rising Temperatures

The IPCC report and most climate scientists use global average temperatures as one of the main metrics to measure the changes happening on our planet on a year-to-year basis. Since the discovery of greenhouse gasses (GHG) and their impacts on the atmosphere, scientists and politicians have been paying attention to rising temperatures. This newest report indicates five distinct scenarios, each with a different prediction for how much the global temperature will increase by 2100. Within each estimate, the report looks at near-term, mid-term, and long-term predictions on rising temperatures. There is a best estimate and then a “likely range” which seems to be the most accurate prediction of what the temperature rise will be for each period and scenario.

Rising temperatures are the main outcome of continued pollution and increased emission of greenhouse gasses like CO2 and methane. The technical report outlines all the different gasses that are contributing to the warming of the planet and gives a detailed account of how these have been changing over the years. While there are a lot of changes and hypothetical changes to how much of each of these are being emitted every year, the report concludes that conjunctively the emissions of most of these gasses are increasing at a rapid rate and some of the worst ones are not being addressed enough. Based on the report, human emission of  GHG is what leads to rising temperatures. In the scenario with the lowest rise in temperature (1.0-1.8°C) by 2100, it is predicting a reduction in GHG emission. So what does this mean exactly? 

This means that even in the most optimistic model where the GHG emission is to decrease from current levels of emission, we will still see temperatures rising by at least 1.0°C by 2100. This is mainly due to the already large extent of damage done by increased emissions over the last 50+ years. This is significant since in the past it seemed like we had full control over the situation. As long as we changed our behaviors and reduced emissions of carbon dioxide we would not only stop temperature rise but maybe even start to go back to normal levels. However, this new report in addition to the previous one highlights the lack of substantial progress of the last 20 years. A lot of damage has been done that will be almost impossible to completely remedy in the next 80 years. This is all based on the calculations and advancements that were known at the time of the writing of the report. We don’t know if new technologies that could emerge in the next few years will help to alter these predictions for the better. 

Effects of Rising Temperatures

As previous reports have outlined, the rise in temperatures alone doesn’t necessarily mean too much until you consider how that can affect other aspects of our environment and climate. Most notably would be a rise in sea levels due to the melting of ice caps in the north and south poles as well as the melting of glaciers and other ice in high altitude regions. This has a significant effect on our oceans as a temperature rise would affect not only sea life but also coasts. With a rising sea level, coastal environments would be at risk of flooding. One of the most fundamental aspects of our planet is how interwoven and connected everything is. Damages in one area affect the entire world because the ecosystem is delicately balanced. Normally the planet undergoes changes very slowly, generally throughout the course of thousands or even millions of years. All living things are capable of adapting but usually not at a rate that is this accelerated. The rise in temperatures has been accelerating almost every decade since the 1700s and the rise of infrastructure, industry, and modern large-scale agriculture which are the main sources of GHG emissions have been the main cause. Ok so we’ve made it this far through the report and frankly, it is pretty grim, but how will we humans be affected by it?

One of the most visible consequences of rising climate and rising temperatures that most people don’t see as a direct consequence is that of increased frequency and damage of natural disasters. Almost every natural disaster has seen an increase in frequency and sometimes in magnitude over the last 20 years or so. The devastating effects of hurricanes, heavy precipitation, and heat waves have only gotten worse and will continue to get worse as this continues. These are creating damages to the people that live in the affected areas which are not limited to the coast but to almost every corner of the planet. Agriculture is getting hit hard in areas with extreme heat and droughts as well as heavy rainfall. This ruins crops and makes it even more difficult for poorer farmers to make a living, especially in the poorest of countries that are less capable of adjusting.

One of the least talked about consequences of climate change is mass migration. Due to these natural disasters and worsening conditions for farmers and fishermen and other professions that depend on a clean and healthy environment are being forced to move to other jobs and other cities or countries in search of a livable occupation. The report predicts that these conditions that are forcing millions to leave their homes and livelihoods will only get worse given the current trajectory. 

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So what can we do?

On an individual level, it might seem quite hopeless to try and change anything. If those individuals who have been fighting for this cause for over five decades have seen things mainly get worse why bother? Well, it is not that black and white. It can be argued that some things have been improved since the 1960s when this issue first started to get noticed. There is now a lot more pressure and awareness of the issue as well as a global effort to try and reduce emissions and stop pollution. A multitude of initiatives have taken place and have helped. Predictions from the 1990s for what things could be in 2020 included scenarios that were much worse than what we saw in 2020. These are encouraging signs that a lot of these efforts are effective and are leading to change for the better.

It is also a reminder that there is still a lot to do in the effort to mitigate the damages of Climate Change. We need to continue to be forward thinkers and consider our long-term goals before submitting to our present or short-term future goals. Humans as individuals need to demand better from ourselves and our neighbors. This starts with awareness and education and ends with follow-through on actions. Whether as a customer or a business, we must continue to improve our decision-making. Importantly, we need to look to our political and business leaders as models to help foster innovation and take action through the means that we already know. 

The report itself might be a long and at times difficult read, but it is important to understand the specific measurements the IPCC used and the specific areas in which there is damage being caused and why. Through better understanding, we can make better choices. Give it a read here.