The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released the much-anticipated finalized version of its special report on global warming following a summit in Incheon, South Korea.
Prepared by 91 co-authors hailing from 40 countries, the IPCC's exhaustive, devastating Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 C˚ has been in the works since the Paris climate agreement was first adopted in 2015. The long-term goal of the Paris Accord is to maintain the rise of global temperatures safely below a cataclysmic increase of 2 degrees Celsius (35.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by limiting it to a maximum increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius (34.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. The landmark report was designed to provide a framework for how the global community can work together to achieve that outcome and avert climate disaster.
First, the good news: Per the report, limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is indeed possible. We can do it.
The bad news: Considering that global temperatures have already risen 1 degree Celsius from pre-industrial levels and are continuing to swell, drastic action must be taken before 2030 — that's under 12 years before we reach the tipping point. If not, the 1.5-degree Celsius limit established by the Paris Accord will be reached and subsequently exceeded. And although the report puts it in gentle terms, civilization as we know it will be significantly altered once 1.5 degrees is eclipsed. This could happen as soon as 2040.
As the IPCC notes, establishing a 1.5-degree Celsius cap on global warming will offer "clear benefits to people and natural ecosystems" but not until "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society" take place.
A radical paradigm shift is required, basically. So, yeah, no pressure at all.
The U.S. feels the heat
It can be difficult to fully grasp the magnitude of what the IPCC has outlined in its report. And in America, where the population is just a wee bit distracted by other current events, this incomprehension is underlined by a greater sense of urgency.
As global leaders pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ditch dirty fossil fuels (the IPCC makes it clear we really need to pick up the pace on that front) to meet Paris Accord targets, the United States under the Trump administration has taken a regressive, even fatalistic approach. Environmental regulations including limits on air pollution are being slashed, ardent climate change denialists have been handed high-profile soapboxes and the flailing coal industry has been promised an (unlikely) rebirth. The list goes on.
Simply put, since November 2016, the U.S. — on a federal level — has never been in a worse place in its willingness to take aggressive action against rising global temperatures. (Keep in mind that the U.S. is the only country that intends to withdraw from the Paris Accord — a somewhat confusing issue in itself.)
As British newspaper the Independent concludes in a sobering editorial: "The largest single obstacle to saving the planet's ecology sits in the White House. So many times in the past America has saved the world; now the moment has come when the rest of the world will need to make many sacrifices to save itself and America."
This isn't to say the U.S. is a completely lost cause. Numerous cities, states and local municipalities have made it clear that they won't diverge from the goals set forth by the Paris Accord and are striving toward a greener, cleaner and less catastrophic future. These local and state governments — California being a shining example — are moving to drastically reduce emissions, embrace renewable energy sources and bolster clean transport options. Progress is being made even though the indifference on display at a federal level is a stark contrast.
'Rapid and far-reaching' changes required
Many governments around the globe — the U.S. aside — are on the right path. But in order to maintain the 1.5-degree Celsius limit, everyone must be involved.
As a press statement explains, "rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities” will be required. Global carbon dioxide emissions must fall roughly 45 percent from 2010 levels — note: not the current higher levels — by 2030. Net-zero levels must be reached 20 years after that, which as the IPCC explains, would involve the industrial-scale removal of any remaining CO2 emissions from the air.
In 2017, global carbon emissions reached a historic high of 32.5 gigatons after remaining flat for a 3-year span. This was largely due to a larger-than-normal 2.1 percent increase in global energy demand — a demand predominately (70 percent) met with oil, coal and natural gas with renewable sources taking care of the rest.
And with energy demand showing no signs of slowing, the International Energy Agency (IEA) is now forecasting that emission levels for 2018 won't stay stagnant or experience even a modest decline ... they'll continue to grow.
"This is definitely worrying news for our climate goals," Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, tells the Guardian. "We need to see a steep decline in emissions."
Even a half-degree makes a huge difference
The difference between a 1.5-degree Celsius bump in global temperatures and a 2-degree Celsius bump are staggering. And to be clear, a 1.5-degree rise is less than ideal.
"One of the key messages that comes out very strongly from this report is that we are already seeing the consequences of 1 degree Celsius of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes," explains Panmao Zhai, an esteemed Chinese climatologist. Zhai serves as co-chair of IPCC Working Group I, which addresses the physical science basis of climate change.
In the year 2100, for example, global sea level rise within the constrains of a 1.5-degree limit will be 10 centimeters (3.9 inches) less than that of 2 degrees. The likelihood of the Arctic Ocean experiencing an ice-free summer would be restricted to occurring once-a-century with 1.5 degrees of global warming versus the once-a-decade scenario under a 2-degree rise. About 70 to 90 percent of the oceans' coral reefs would be wiped out under a 1.5-degree increase in global temperatures. With a bump of just .5 degrees, they'd disappear entirely. (Again, a 1.5-degree rise in global temperatures is devastating but better than the alternative.) Furthermore, water shortages will be less widespread, increases in severe weather will be less marked and fewer species will go extinct if the 1.5-degree limit is maintained.
"Every extra bit of warming matters, especially since warming of 1.5 degree Celsius or higher increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as the loss of some ecosystems," says Dr. Hans-Otto Pörtner, a noted German biologist and co-chair of IPCC Working Group II, which addresses impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.
So what's next?
That's for world leaders to figure out.
In December, governments from around the globe will converge on Poland for the UNFCCC Katowice Climate Conference (COP24). It's clear now what will be main topic of discussion: how to save humanity from global warming in the quickest and most effective way possible.
Says Dr. Debra Roberts, a South African climate specialist and co-chair of IPCC Working Group II: "This report gives policymakers and practitioners the information they need to make decisions that tackle climate change while considering local context and people's needs. The next few years are probably the most important in our history."
Indeed. As Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist and writer for Grist, aptly puts it: "This isn't just a science report. This is the world's best scientists screaming in terrifyingly politely worded specificity."
We're not doomed. But we do have serious work to do.
The clock is ticking.