The alarm bells really couldn’t be any louder or clearer.
We are living through the last years still left to prevent a future of permanent and catastrophic climate change. The planet’s future – humanity’s future - is in our hands.
That’s the inescapable conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis” report, which was released on Monday, August 9.
The report -the consensus of hundreds of the world’s top climate scientists from literally all around the world – details the latest and best available information on what we know about climate change.
“Global surface temperature has increased faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over at least the last 2000 years,” the report notes with a finding of “high confidence.” (Which, coming from the extraordinarily cautious international scientific community, is essentially the same as saying the sun rises tomorrow.)
In other words, our world is warming faster than any point in recorded history. Over the following the pages, the report details the many and far-reaching consequences – more drought, seas rising, greater extremes in temperatures, and on and on – already baked in and what we can expect in future years unless the world acts quickly to aggressively cut emissions and ultimately reach net zero by 2050.
The timing of the report matters. Greatly.
The same day the IPCC released the report, Senate Democrats in Congress released a budget resolution that could open the door to the kind of bold and non-negotiatiable measures – like a clean energy standard and tax incentives for clean energy and transit – we need if the world’s largest economy is going to have any shot at meaningfully cutting emissions.
Plus in November, representatives of nearly 200 countries will meet in Glasgow for the UN’s COP 26 climate conference to potentially hammer out a stronger version of the Paris Agreement, the international community’s framework for global cooperation on climate action.
In this moment, the report amounts to an existential choice for policymakers and the rest of us. Act now in the last years we have left and we have a shot at actually holding warming to 1.5 degrees and averting the worst of climate change.
Fail, and well, we could see seas rise beyond 1 to 2meters, oceans warm four to eight times what we’ve seen in recent decades, and even more extreme heatwaves, droughts, and hurricanes become ordinary affairs.
So how do we get there? Five key takeaways from the report.
1. There’s No Doubt: It’s Us
It’s as clear a declaration as you’ll get and the clearest we’ve seen in a document of this scope and importance:
“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.”
Unequivocal. Humans are causing the climate to change and with it, changing every aspect of the Earth. Just to prove it, scientists modeled global temperature with and without our greenhouse gas emissions. Taking out fossil fuel emissions and considering natural variability factors like sun cycles and volcano eruptions, temperatures stayed flat or even fell slightly.
Bear in mind that the IPCC is a notoriously cautious body. Any statement like this has to get sign-off from representatives of countries that are heavily – if not utterly – reliant on fossil fuels. If the IPCC says without a doubt that it’s us, it’s us.
2. Lasting Change Is Locked In
“Many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level.”
Even in our best-case scenario of holding warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (more on that below), seas could rise up to half meter or more this century. The Arctic will be largely ice-free at least once in September by 2050. Changes to the global water cycle will likely intensify, with rainfall likely increasing for regions like the equatorial Pacific and monsoon regions and drying out in regions in South America, the US West, and Europe. The frequency of once-every-10-year droughts will likely double.
The list goes on and on and on. And again, that’s our best-case scenario.
3. The More We Pollute, the Worse It Gets
“This Report reaffirms with high confidence the AR5 finding that there is a near-linear relationship between cumulative anthropogenic CO2 emissions and the global warming they cause. Each 1000 GtCO2 of cumulative CO2 emissions is assessed to likely cause a 0.27°C to 0.63°C increase in global surface temperature with a best estimate of 0.45°C.”
In a nutshell, scientists can confidently trace the relationship between how much greenhouse gas pollution we dump into the atmosphere and how much the planet warms.
Every fraction of a degree of warming matters. The report notes that many changes we’re already seeing right now – hotter heatwaves, stronger storms, longer droughts – become even more intense and destructive in direct proportion to increasing temperatures. There’s a big difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees – and even more as temperatures get hotter.
Concerningly, Earth’s natural carbon sinks – think forests and oceans – also begin to max out their ability to absorb carbon and slow warming. What this means is that the systems that for years have played a huge part in putting the brakes on warming are less and less able to absorb the same proportion of greenhouse gases as temperatures continue to rise.
4. How Much Warming We See Is Entirely Up to Us
The report maps out five futures of warming, based on very low and going to negative), low, intermediate, high, and very high levels of emissions in the 21st century.
All emissions scenarios see likely 1.5 to 1.6 temperature rise in the near term (between now and 2040). The pronounced difference comes in the mid-term (2041–2060) and long-term (2081–2020)
In a very low emissions scenario (which involves rapid cuts from levels today and reaching net zero and even negative emissions by mid-century), scientists estimate temperature rise likely reaching 1.6 degrees in the mid-term and falling back to 1.4 in the long-term.
In a low emissions scenario where emissions fall but much more slowly, those numbers are 1.7 and 1.8. High emissions take that to 2.1 and a staggering 3.6 degrees, respectively. As mentioned above, that’s the difference between the possibility of humanity thriving and merely surviving.
5. Our Future Depends on Reaching Net Zero Fast
Buried in the report is cause for real hope. We know what to do.
“From a physical science perspective, limiting human-induced global warming to a specific level requires limiting cumulative CO2 emissions, reaching at least net zero CO2 emissions, along with strong reductions in other greenhouse gas emissions.”
Quickly cutting emissions and reaching net zero by mid-century “would have rapid and sustained effects to limit human-caused climate change, compared with scenarios with high or very high GHG emissions.”
In other words, if we act fast and act boldly, we can still limit global warming, with profound consequences for the planet and the future we give our children.
Time to Get to Work
Scientists get a bad rap in some parts for speaking in a language the feels as foreign to the rest of us as cuneiform is to your average Twitter user. But at its heart and in its own way, the IPCC’s report is a love letter to the Earth, filled equally with mourning for what we have done and hope for what we might still do to save so much.
It’s also as clear a cry to policymakers as the community could make. The stakes couldn’t be plainer or higher. And with both Congress and the international community as a whole facing critical decision points, this could be the year that we choose to avert catastrophe. The year we remember what really, really matters and stop making excuses. The year we finally recognize we are out of time for next times and get to work to protect this one precious place we call home. Because it’s worth fighting for.
Take action today and tell Congress we need to go big on climate solutions. While we still can.
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