by Kevin Schofield
This week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its new Sixth Assessment Report on the current scientific consensus on where things stand with regard to our changing global climate. It’s an update on its last report (the Fifth Assessment) from 2013, with hundreds of scientists from all over the world collaborating to provide both assessments of the current climate and also updated models of what is most likely to happen from here.
The new report is 3,949 pages. That is a “long read” even outside of my tolerance, so I’m not going to suggest that you read it. Instead, I’m going to point you to three much shorter documents to read:
- IPCC’s Summary for Policymakers;
- IPCC’s Regional Fact Sheet for Central and North America, which focuses on the present and future impacts of climate change here in our own backyard; and
- An excellent summary by the news site Quartz on the key findings from the full report.
In 2013, the IPCC said that humanity’s contribution to climate change was “clear.” In the new report, they call it “unequivocal.” Since the beginning of the Industrial Age in the mid-19th century, global surface air temperatures have risen between 0.9 and 1.2 degrees Celsius. Naturally occurring forces contributed somewhere from -0.1 to 0.1 degrees of that; humans did the rest.
The Paris Climate Summit set goals in place to try to limit global atmospheric warming to under 1.5 degrees Celsius; however, the latest models conclude that there is almost no chance that will happen. The old models calculated that Earth would cross the 1.5-degree threshold sometime in the 2040s; that has now been moved up to the “early 2030s.” Climate change is happening faster, and more dramatically. The models predict that the intensity of weather extremes will double if global warming reaches 2 degrees C; it quadruples at 3 degrees.
Of the carbon dioxide emissions that human society has produced from 2010 to 2019, 23% were absorbed into the ocean, 31% went into vegetation, and 46% accumulated in the atmosphere. The portion in the atmosphere forms a blanket that traps heat and warms the air. The portion in the oceans causes the water to warm, expand, and acidify, leading to rising sea levels, flooding, melting polar ice caps, changes to ocean currents, and massive impacts on sea life. And that’s just carbon-dioxide; more attention is now being paid to other emissions, most notably methane, which doesn’t remain in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide but is a far more potent “greenhouse gas.”
The main message of the report for policymakers — and for all of us — is that the plans proposed for dealing with climate change are woefully insufficient. We can already see all around us the impact of climate change; they are undeniable. And we are on a path for it to get far worse in the years and decades to come.
The IPCC report is now sounding the alarm full blast. It’s a call to action that provides many updated answers as to the present and future impacts of climate change on our rapidly changing world. The one question it doesn’t, and can’t, answer is whether this time leaders will respond in meaningful ways.
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and the founder of Seattle City Council Insight, a website providing independent news and analysis of the Seattle City Council and City Hall. He also co-hosts the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast with Brian Callanan, and appears from time to time on Converge Media and KUOW’s Week in Review.
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