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In a few short decades, climate change has gone from an inconvenient truth to an undeniable reality — but what does it really mean for the planet if we don’t address climate change quickly?
On August 9th, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered its latest report on the status of global climate change to answer this very question. Already, newspapers and analysts have declared it the clearest assessment yet of the dire status of our planet’s rapidly changing climate — and how this will impact the future of all life, including humanity.
The IPCC is a United Nations body established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to assess the science related to climate change. Essentially, it's a coalition of volunteer scientists from around the globe charged with compiling existing data about climate change. Utilizing more than 14,000 peer-reviewed studies, this report predicts the possible futures of climate change in order to inform and educate global policymakers.
We know most of you probably don't have time to dive into the full 3,949 page report, so we've summarized the 5 key takeaways.
1. Climate Change is Indisputably Human-Caused
The report doesn't beat around the bush, confirming right at the beginning that “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.”
But we already knew that, right? Yes, but it's groundbreaking to have it laid out so clearly in a report delivered by the world’s top climate scientists — with line-by-line approval from governments of more than 120 countries.
To address climate change, consensus is needed from governments around the world about both the severity of the issue and its root causes. This frank opening to the report indicates that consensus is coming, which is a huge step for climate science and policy going forward.
Because of this report, there's no longer any question about whether the rise in global temperatures is a result of a natural heating cycle or human activity; it is entirely human-caused.
2. 2010-2020 Was the Hottest Decade in 125,000 Years
This is coupled with reporting that atmospheric CO2 is at a 2,000,000-year peak and that other greenhouse gasses like methane and nitrous oxide are at 800,000-year peaks.
If reading that set off your climate anxiety, hang on tight because the findings also indicate that the high temperatures we’re feeling right now are actually lessened by the effects of pollution. Aerosols and fine particles cause a contradictory cooling effect, so the actual increase in global temperatures is higher than the numbers might indicate. This means we could already be close to the 1.5°C increase warned of in the Paris Climate Accords.
3. Certain Changes We’ve Already Seen Are Irreversible
The effects of climate change are being felt right now among many frontline communities around the globe. Extreme weather events like flooding, wildfires, drought and mudslides have increased in recent years, providing a glimpse into one possible future.
What this means — and what our current warming levels indicate — is that sea levels will continue to rise no matter what we do. The level of global warming we’ve already reached has caused the polar ice caps and permafrost to begin melting and thawing. And as ice melts, it only triggers more ice melt in an accelerating feedback loop.
There are certain agreed-upon tipping points when it comes to climate change — or, changes that scientists agree would be irreversible should we ever reach them. A few examples include complete polar ice melt, sea level rise that's above 6 or 7 meters, and severe forest dieback.
Unfortunately, the report indicates that these extreme scenarios can't be ruled out of future predictions if humanity doesn't take drastic action to address climate change in a meaningful way.
4. Greenhouse Gas Emissions Are the Leading Cause of Climate Change
If there was any debate left on the biggest contributors to climate change, then consider it closed. The report is scathing in its outlook on the necessity of reducing global emissions, giving humanity very little time to enact a positive change.
CO2 in particular is one of the largest contributors to global warming, comprising almost 1/2 of the total negative impact. While these results confirm what we already knew, they do provide a very clear picture of where we most need to change.
By working to reduce just CO2 alone, we can make a world of difference in the climate fight, but time is running short. At our current rate, we're on track to reach the CO2 production limits set at the Paris Climate Accords in 2015in a decade or less.This means that the next few years are going to be some of the most crucial in shaping global policies and attitudes towards addressing climate change.
5. Climate Events Are Increasing in Severity and Number in Every Region of the Planet
Perhaps the most dire takeaway from the IPCC report is just how extensive the impacts of global warming will be, even at the small temperature increases we're on track to hit by the end of the century.
As the planet warms, we'll continue to see regions impacted not just by increased heat, but more extreme weather events like forest fires, floods and droughts. Those events will continue to grow more and more severe as temperatures increase. This one-two punch of severe heat waves and increased rainfall doesn't even out. Instead, it fluctuates much like it has in California and the West Coast, which has experienced severe droughts one season and overabundant rainfall the next season, leading to severe fooding, erosion, habitat degradation, and more.
According to the report, scientists are now able to pinpoint exactly which disasters and weather events are caused by climate change. And unsurprisingly, the floods in Western Europe and China this summer, hurricanes Harvey and Maria in 2017, and the recent wildfires in British Columbia, the Western United States, and much of the Balkans are all examples of disasters that were either due to or amplified by climate change.
In short, the predictions are dire and the consequences are severe. But the good news is that we’ve never had a more clear-eyed assessment of our future — and while dire predictions aren't fun to read, they serve an important role in convincing policymakers that we need to act on climate change now.
While this report has predicted the plausible scenarios we can expect, a future report from the IPCC will outline key policy decisions that can help mitigate the disastrous impact of climate change in the coming decades.
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