A look at the new 3,600-page UN climate report – Natural Self Esteem

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In 2004, PR firm Ogilvy and Mather had an idea. By shifting the blame for CO2 emissions away from the fossil fuel giants and onto the shoulders of individuals, it could help its client BP avoid blame for the environmental destruction it has wreaked. The result was a personal CO2 footprint calculator – a complete success. Demand for so-called green products boomed overnight as consumers wondered what actions they could take to prevent climate change.

However, a new report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides damning evidence that our efforts have been unsuccessful. In shockingly candid language, he concludes that the effects of climate change are already affecting the entire planet on a catastrophic scale, threatening both the natural and man-made systems on which human life depends. And it’s only going to get worse.

As the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report clarifies that every fraction of a degree of global warming that we avoid is critical to limiting the severity of the looming climate catastrophe, and that reducing emissions is the only way to achieve that, it comes to conclude that we have passed the point where we can hope to avoid catastrophe altogether. Conclusion: We have to adjust to this now. It calls on world governments to build resilience and reduce risk to their populations.

Large scientific reports like this one are written in dry language that is carefully checked to avoid possible inaccuracies. Scientists say “we think” instead of “we know” and often use unfathomable numbers and dense graphics to describe things that can be dramatic and dangerous in the real world. The climate catastrophe is its own great example: a rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius (or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial global averages is poor but survivable; but with an increase of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) or more, our planet becomes unrecognizable, if not uninhabitable, at least for some of us.

Half a degree doesn’t sound like such a big deal. Instead, how about the sentence that UN Secretary-General António Guterres used to describe the results of the assessment? He called it “an atlas of human suffering”.

And here is some of that dry, carefully vetted language from the report itself: “Climate change has caused significant damage and increasingly irreversible losses to terrestrial, freshwater, and coastal and open ocean marine ecosystems (high confidence). The magnitude and magnitude of climate change impacts are greater than previous assessments have estimated (high confidence). Due to climate change, there have been widespread degradations in ecosystem structure and function, resilience, and natural adaptive capacity, as well as shifts in seasonal timing (high confidence) with adverse socioeconomic consequences (high confidence).”

The 2020 aftermath of the Walbridge and Hennessey fires in Sonoma and Napa counties, California (Photo: Stuart Palley)

Written by 270 researchers from 67 countries and approved by 195 national governments, the 3,600-page report details the practical impacts of climate change, both those we are already experiencing and those that will materialize as the planet continues to warm. World leaders have agreed on a target of 1.5 degrees Celsius, but achieving that would require virtually all greenhouse gas emissions to be eliminated by 2050. We’re already at 1.1 degrees Celsius, and science says that while there aren’t massive global changes occurring almost immediately, a two or three degree rise by the end of the century is more likely.

And even if we manage to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, this new IPCC assessment finds we’re still pretty screwed. “Short-term actions that limit global warming to nearly 1.5°C would significantly reduce projected climate change-related losses and damage to human systems and ecosystems compared to higher warming levels, but cannot eliminate them all,” it says it in it.

The report explains that 3.5 billion people worldwide are already forced to adapt to climate change. In densely populated areas of Iran, Pakistan and India, it is already getting too hot to support human life. At least five populated islands in the Pacific Ocean have already been lost to sea level rise. In 2019, storms and floods displaced more than 13 million people across Africa and Asia.

But while the effects of climate change are being felt disproportionately in developing countries, which have done less to contribute, climate catastrophe is coming for the rest of us too. “Even if global warming is limited to 1.5°C, sea level rise, severe storms and hurricanes will threaten lives, safety and livelihoods across North America, particularly in coastal areas (very high confidence),” the statement said Evaluation. It is also reported that North America’s food production, water supply, human health, economic activity, infrastructure, and ecosystems are at very high risk.

How bad will it get? The report goes so far as to compare the impact of climate catastrophe on North America this century with the impact of European colonization on indigenous peoples. “Recent climate-related changes pose cultural threats similar to those that arose when European settlement of the Americas began over 500 years ago,” it says. That, too, comes directly from the report’s dry, carefully examined scientific language.

So what can we do? “If we are to deal with climate hazards and reduce risks to people and ecosystems posed by climate change, we must adapt,” the report concludes. It also recommends far-reaching, global changes that include restoring wetlands, harnessing indigenous knowledge, transforming where we live, modifying existing infrastructure and building new ones, and more.

It also concludes that even large-scale, expensive and difficult adaptation will not be enough unless we also achieve that adaptation while eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. “Adaptation is essential to reduce damage, but if it is to be effective it must be accompanied by ambitious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, since as warming increases, the effectiveness of many adaptation options decreases,” the report notes.

Worryingly, the assessment further acknowledges that correcting all of these at once will be an unprecedented challenge. “In short: ambition, scope and progress in reducing climate risks are increasing, but not enough,” it says. “According to our new report, the world is currently ill-prepared for the coming impacts of climate change, particularly for global warming above 1.5°C.”

“The choice is no longer whether we transform or not,” said Edward R. Carr, one of the report’s authors The New York Times. “The choice is, do we choose transformations that we like? Or are we changed by the world we live in because of what we have done to it?”

That’s a good question. And one that I believe applies to both the individual and society as a whole. Should each of us wait for the same governments and corporations that failed to prevent climate catastrophe to decide how our lives will be transformed, or should we go ahead and start transforming it ourselves? Just as we used to wonder what we can do to prevent this, it’s time to ask ourselves instead, “How do I prepare for climate catastrophe?”

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