In 2004, public relations firm Ogilvy and Mather had an idea. By blaming fossil fuel giants for carbon emissions on the shoulders of individuals, he could help his client, BP, escape blame for the environmental destruction he was causing. The result was a personal carbon footprint calculator, a resounding success. Overnight, demand for so-called green products skyrocketed as consumers began to wonder what steps they could take to prevent climate change.
However, a new report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides overwhelming evidence that our efforts have been unsuccessful. In shockingly candid language, he concludes that the effects of climate change are already having a disastrous impact on the entire planet, threatening both the natural and man-made systems on which human life depends. And it will only get worse.
While the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report makes it clear that every fraction of a degree of global warming we avoid is crucial to limiting the severity of our impending climate catastrophe, and that reducing emissions is the only way to reach, he concludes that we have passed the point where we can hope to avoid disaster altogether. The main thing: now we have to adapt. It calls on governments around the world to build resilience and reduce risk to their populations.
Massive scientific reports like this are written in dry language that is carefully checked to avoid any potential for inaccuracy. Scientists say “we think” instead of “we know” and often use inscrutable numbers and dense graphics to describe things that, in the real world, can be dramatic and dangerous. Climate catastrophe is a prime example: an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius (or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) pre-industrial global averages is bad but survivable; but with an increase of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) or more, our planet will become unrecognizable, if not unlivable, at least for some of us.
Half a degree doesn’t seem so important. So how about, instead, the phrase that UN Secretary-General António Guterres used to describe the findings of the assessment? He called it “an atlas of human suffering”.
And here is some of that dry, carefully checked language from the report itself: “Climate change has caused substantial damage and increasingly irreversible loss to terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and oceanic marine ecosystems (degree high confidence). The extent and magnitude of climate change impacts are greater than estimated in previous assessments (high confidence). Widespread deterioration of ecosystem structure and function, resilience and natural adaptive capacity, as well as changes in seasonal timing have occurred due to climate change (high confidence), with adverse socio-economic consequences (high confidence).
Written by 270 researchers from 67 countries and endorsed by 195 national governments, the 3,600-page report outlines the practical impacts of climate change, both those we already know and those that will occur as the planet continues to warm. . World leaders have agreed on a target limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius, but getting there would require eliminating virtually all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. We are already at 1.1 degree, and science says that unless a massive global change occurs almost immediately, a two or three degree rise is more likely by the end of the century.
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 predicted climate change-related loss and damage to human systems and ecosystems, compared to higher levels of warming, but cannot eliminate them all,” it read.
The report explains that currently 3.5 billion people worldwide are already forced to adapt to climate change. The heavily populated regions of Iran, Pakistan and India are already becoming too hot to support human life. At least five populated islands in the Pacific Ocean have already been lost to rising sea levels. In 2019, storms and floods displaced more than 13 million people in Africa and Asia.
But as the effects of climate change are felt disproportionately in developing countries that have contributed least to it, climate catastrophe is brewing for the rest of us as well. “Even if global warming is limited to 1.5°C, human life, security, and livelihoods in North America, especially in coastal areas, will be threatened by rising sea levels, severe storms and hurricanes (very high confidence),” the assessment read. It also reports that the risks to North American food production, water supply, human health, economic activity, infrastructure and ecosystems are all very high.
How bad is it going to get? The report goes so far as to compare the effects of climate catastrophe on North America this century to the effects of European colonization on Indigenous peoples. “Recent climate-related changes pose cultural threats similar to those that occurred when European colonization began in the Americas more than 500 years ago,” the report said. Again, this comes straight from the dry and carefully vetted scientific language of the report.
So what can we do? “If we are to cope with climate hazards and reduce the risks to people and ecosystems that arise from climate change, we must adapt,” the report concludes. It goes on to recommend sweeping global changes that include restoring wetlands, using indigenous knowledge, changing where people live, modifying existing infrastructure and building new infrastructure, and much more.
It also concludes that even large, costly, and difficult adaptation will not suffice unless we also achieve that adaptation while eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. “Adaptation is key to reducing harm, but to be effective it must go hand in hand with ambitious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, because with increased warming the effectiveness of many adaptation options diminishes. “, concludes the report.
Worryingly, the assessment goes on to acknowledge that rectifying all of this simultaneously will be an unprecedented challenge. “In short: ambition, scope and progress in climate risk reduction are growing, but not enough,” he says. “According to our new report, the world is currently underprepared for the impacts of future climate change, particularly beyond 1.5°C of global warming.”
“The choice is not 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 the transformations we like? Or are we changed by the world we live in because of what we have done to it?
It’s a good question. And I think it applies as much to the individual as to society as a whole. Should we each wait for the same governments and corporations that failed to prevent climate catastrophe to decide how our lives will be transformed, or should we step forward and start transforming them ourselves? Just as we used to ask ourselves what we could do to prevent it, it’s time to start asking ourselves, “How am I preparing for climate catastrophe?” »