We have to think big and act quickly if we want to keep global warming at levels we can live with.
That’s the inevitable conclusion from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report, Global Warming of 1.5ºC. In case you don’t spend every day deciphering UN acronyms, the IPCC is the voice of the world’s top climate scientists. The organization brings together literally thousands of scientists and researchers working in every related field from atmospheric sciences to marine biology and on every continent to distill what we know about what’s happening to our planet.
To put it another way, if there’s any single organization you can trust to have a clear view of the climate crisis and tell it like it is – without politics, without hype – it’s the IPCC. Which means that when it says we don’t have time to wait, we don’t have time to wait.
The Backstory Matters
Back in 2015, the Paris Agreement committed the world to the goal of “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”
It’s an ambitious goal, no doubt about it. But that 2 degree number first came not from hard science, but an economist – the legendary William Nordhaus back in 1975. Through some twists and turns, it made its way into policy circles and the popular imagination as the limit of safe adaptation and, well, just kind of stuck.
So after policymakers reached the Paris Agreement with the 1.5 and 2 degree targets, the UN commissioned the IPCC to determine what exactly they meant in the real world, studying everything from sea levels to wildlife habitat to poverty alleviation.
More simply, what is the world we’re fighting for? And can we even get there?
What the IPCC found – and the report details – should be a wakeup call to the world. Especially with leaders getting ready to head to Poland for COP 24 to work out how we turn high-level pledges into practical next steps on the ground.
The report covers a lot of ground – a whole lot of ground – but here are the five takeaways that stand out.
1. We’re already at 1 degree – How Much Hotter Is up to Us
The report estimates that since the Industrial Revolution, human activity (i.e. burning fossil fuels) has already put enough carbon pollution into the atmosphere to raise global mean temperatures between 0.8 and 1.2 degrees Celsius. Call it – as the report does – 1 degree.
All the pollution already in the atmosphere will keep trapping heat for years, whatever we do. But on their own, current greenhouse gas levels are unlikely to raise temperatures another half degree or more. Which is to say, how much global warming continues from now is basically in our hands. Starting now.
2. There’s a Big Difference between Today and 1.5 Degrees – and a Huge Difference between 1.5 and 2 Degrees
If you’ve seen the movie Argo, you’ll remember the scene where the CIA agent Tony Mendez – played by Ben Affleck – pitches the crazy we’ll-go-into-Iran-posing-as-a-Canadian-film-crew-and-rescue-the-hostages plan to his boss.
His boss, CIA Director Stansfield Turner, listens with an expression of pure stupefaction and asks, “You don’t have a better bad idea than this?”
Mendez tells him, “This is the best bad idea we have, sir.”
Today, 1.5 degrees is the best bad idea we have for limiting global warming. This is the world we’re fighting for.
The report details a host of likely results of reaching 1.5 degrees of warming: storms growing even more powerful; oceans becoming more acidic and killing off major sections of coral; whole sections of landmasses transforming from one ecosystem to another. Truly, the list goes on and there’s every reason to be very, very concerned.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that 1.5 degrees, while bad, is a world we can live with (with the right planning and adaptation, especially supporting people living in low-lying areas and islands who will lose their homes to rising seas).
Things get outright terrifying at 2 degrees. The report shifts many predictions in this scenario from “high confidence” (science for “the sun will rise tomorrow”) to medium confidence (science for “dropping a tomato off a roof likely gives you ketchup”). But the picture is clear: massive ecosystem loss; potentially irreversible melting of ice sheets triggering sea-level rise affecting millions; species extinction; annual fishery catches declining by up to 3 million tons. This is Halloween movies stuff.
Bottom line one: We don’t want to go there. Bottom line two: 1.5 is the new 2 degrees.
3. It’s 2030 or Bust
Because all the greenhouse gases we emit today have a nasty habit of sticking around like boors at a party – still taking up space and ruining the atmosphere long after everyone else has left – we have only a short window to radically reduce emissions if we want to keep warming to 1.5 degrees.
That window closes – more or less – around 2030.
As the report outlines, if we want to hold the line to 1.5 degrees, we have to slash emissions by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030. Then we have to reach net-zero around 2050. The scenarios for 2 degrees are a little more forgiving, with a lot more devastation as a result: 20 percent by 2030 and net-zero by about 2075.
These are reductions planet-wide. After 2030, all signs point to greater levels of greenhouse gases starting a domino effect of climate risks we can’t accurately predict but are pretty sure no one wants to see.
The Degree of Disaster
The worst of climate change was supposed to be decades away, but the world's top climate scientists just came out with a report saying it's closer than we ever could have ever imagined. #YEARSprojectPosted by The Years Project on Wednesday, October 10, 2018
4. It’s a Big Ask
Reading the report, there’s a huge question that doesn’t come to mind as much as take over every inch of your synapses. Namely, how the (four-letter-word) do we solve this?
The IPCC has an answer, in one key passage:
“Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems (high confidence). These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options (medium confidence).”
In normal people words, the message is this: We’ve got to move faster and go further than we ever have before. We’ve got to transform every aspect of how we use energy, from how we produce it (i.e. shifting completely to renewable and zero-carbon energy) to how we use it (i.e. rapidly electrify our transportation networks and greatly increase energy efficiency).
And that’s just for starters. And we have to start, well, now.
That’s the stuff we know how to do – because we do. A little farther down, the report drops in one more requirement. To hold the 1.5 degree line, we also need to remove carbon from the atmosphere on a pretty significant scale.
Now if you read that and think, “Oh, that’s great. How do we do that?”, you’re not alone. In fact, you’ve just asked the $69 trillion question (this being the IPCC’s number for carbon removal in a 2-degree world). Because we don’t yet have an answer. Not at least for the scale we need. The good news is that lots of very, very smart people are working on the answer. But we’re not there yet. It’s hard to like this answer, but there you go.
In some ways, the huge changes we need to see by 2030 make the next decade feel like a planet-wide psychology experiment. With the future of the world literally at stake, will we change?
The simple answer is that we have to. Yes, it’s a big ask. Yes, it will be hard. But so was reaching the South Pole in 1911. So was putting a man on the moon. So was eradicating smallpox. The difference this time is that it’s not up to a crack team of explorers or scientists. It’s up to all of us.
5. Paris Is Not Enough
This one is short: Current pledges in the Paris Agreement will get us to about 3 degrees of warming by 2100. Not 1.5, not even 2 degrees. Three degrees. That’s a world none of us want to live in. That’s a world we wouldn’t wish on anyone.
This is one prediction the report makes with medium (think: dropping tomato produces ketchup) confidence, but even if it’s off a little, the general shape is clear and the conclusion is inevitable: We need to radically strengthen Paris Agreements and get to work right away.
With world leaders getting ready to meet in Poland for the UN’s COP 24 climate conference to hammer out the next steps of how countries will meet and strengthen their pledges, the timing of this report couldn’t be more critical.
If hearing about the IPCC report has you a little shook up, well that’s about right. It’s worth repeating that the future of the world is at stake here.
But you should also take away hope. Because the report does have a silver lining. What comes next – and how much our climate changes – really is up to us. Which might be the most hopeful and empowering message of all.
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