The New U.N. Climate Report Has Arrived. Resist the Urge to Despair

6 minute read
Griscom is the vice president of natural climate solutions at Conservation International, a U.S.-based nonprofit.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a behemoth report on our warming world—something it has done routinely for three decades. Though the findings have evolved considerably over the years, the news cycle is always strikingly similar: World leaders offer bombastic soundbites, and headlines warn of impending doom. In turn, many people will interpret this report as a stark warning that humans are joy-riding down the highway to hell.

As a climate scientist of two decades, I do not share this view. Certainly, there is cause for deep concern. Today’s report confirms that humanity is on track to blow past 1.5°C (2.7°F) of planetary warming by the early 2030s. With each additional half-degree, the risk of deadly heat waves and flooding will increase substantially—and the effects are already manifesting on every continent. This is an existential crisis, and our actions today will dictate what happens tomorrow.

Even so, the latest assessment—as well as those released last year—did not fill me with dread. Like many scientists, I was disheartened for decades, but today’s report makes me feel more inspired than ever. Here are three reasons why:

We’ve already come a long way

In 1985, two decades before the release of An Inconvenient Truth, 89 scientists from 29 countries gathered in Austria to discuss the emerging science of climate change and the growing body of evidence suggesting it was human-caused. Attendees resolved to work shoulder-to-shoulder with policymakers to develop a response; the IPCC was born soon after.

The challenge before them was enormous, but the IPCC worked diligently to lay a strong scientific foundation for new policy. It paid off. Every major international climate agreement—from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1990, to the Paris Accords of 2015—was built atop findings from the IPCC. In just 30 years, the IPCC established scientific consensus, achieved near-universal public awareness, and aligned 198 governments around a transformative policy agenda.

Read More: How Climate Change Became Central to U.S.-Europe Relations

That is without precedent, and it is worth celebrating.

To put that achievement in perspective, consider tobacco. Physicians first noted that smoking caused “scorched lungs” in the 1600s, and a link to cancer was established in 1795. It took another 150 years for the medical community to coalesce around the dangers. Even then, you could still smoke on an airplane until 1990.

Progress is always a process—and when it comes to climate, progress is accelerating. This cannot come a moment too soon. We are walking when we must be sprinting.

Decarbonization is accelerating

Today’s “synthesis” report builds on a 1,977-page document released last year, which was devoted entirely to climate solutions. Authors acknowledged that existing climate commitments are insufficient, and without deep and rapid changes to the global economy, temperature averages could rise 3°C (5.4°F) by 2100. However, they also made clear that catastrophe isn’t inevitable, and there is still plenty we can do. “We actually have all the knowledge we need. All the tools we need. We just need to implement it,” said Friederike Otto, one of the IPCC report authors. If we can implement those changes, temperatures will likely stabilize within two decades.

Even the highway to hell has exit ramps.

To limit warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F), emissions must peak within the next two years, and the world must reach net-zero by 2050. “Deep, rapid, and sustained” emissions cuts have always been a tall order, but fortunately, clean energy has never been more viable. The IPCC found that solar panels are about 85% cheaper than in 2010; the same goes for the batteries required to store renewable energy. As prices plummet, demand is rising faster than most models anticipated. China will install more solar capacity this year than the United States did in the last decade, potentially kicking off a renewable energy race to the top.

In total, climate finance increased 60% since the last assessment cycle concluded in 2014; that figure will only continue to grow as recent climate laws are fully implemented. Notably, the IPCC also found that at least 18 countries have already managed to decouple economic growth from emissions, sending a clear signal to other nations that green transition need not be an albatross.

The age of restoration has begun

Decarbonization will take time—utility-scale wind farms and interstate transmission lines are not built overnight. Fortunately, the IPCC has identified another tool we can leverage immediately: photosynthesis.

The latest report re-affirms that three of the top five highest-potential mitigation techniques involve living ecosystems: halting deforestation, restoring carbon-rich ecosystems like wetlands and rainforests, and improving how we manage agricultural lands. Ecosystems are the backbone of Earth’s climate, currently absorbing half of all greenhouse gases emitted by humans. They are also incredibly resilient—as carbon pollution has accelerated, so too has nature’s ability to capture it. Research shows that forests are absorbing carbon faster in response to more carbon in the air, and trees have surprising abilities to adapt as temperature and moisture change.

All told, repairing our broken relationship with nature could provide at least one-third of the emissions reductions required to stabilize our climate. These projects are immediately scalable, relatively inexpensive, and they require no technical leaps of faith.

Read More: Here’s How Carbon Offsets Can Live up to Their Bold Promises

The impacts of climate change will not be uniformly distributed. Though countries in the Global South contributed little to the present crisis, they will nonetheless bear the brunt of it. Nature is not just a powerful mitigation tool; it can also build community resilience as temperatures rise. Integrating trees into farmland, for example, can provide crucial shade for heat-stressed crops; restoring mangrove forests can protect coastal communities from storm surge; and improved rangeland management can bolster local water supplies. In fact, if adequately funded, these “natural” climate solutions can help address many of humanity’s greatest challenges in one fell swoop: food and water security, species loss, “spillover” pandemics, and economic inequality.

In 1936, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

That is our challenge.

Climate change is a planetary emergency, and we shouldn’t forget that there are severe consequences to getting this wrong—and right now, we are getting it wrong by not acting fast enough. But we cannot lose sight of what awaits us if we get this right. We are standing on the precipice of one of the greatest economic transformations in human history—if we can see this through, we will be living in a world that is richer in every sense of the word.

As the push notifications arrive, don’t panic. Let the bad news sink in but recognize that it need not be fate. A bright future awaits if we’re willing to build it.

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