It often happens that the negative predictions made by scientists, economists, and other experts are disregarded. This is because those “alarms”, raised far in advance, serve to allow those in power, the leaders who make the relevant decisions, to have time to bring positive change. This is better than waiting for the next emergency or – worse – trying to patch things up when the effects are already irreversible.
This, unfortunately, has not been the case with climate scientists. These researchers have raised many alarms, sounded countless sirens, but to no avail. The actions that have been undertaken globally to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions, halt global warming, and combat the climate crisis are still nowhere near enough. World leaders get an F, and it’s not even close.
The above is a pragmatic, if not very technical, summary of the outcome of the first part of the IPCC’s sixth Assessment Report (AR6). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, founded in 1988 through a collaboration between the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for its efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change”. This was in 2007.
The latest warning, then, is the last in a long list. This time it comes in the build-up to COP26, the yearly climate conference organised by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), which will be held in Glasgow, Scotland, between 31st October and 12th November. COP26 is seen by many as our last chance to take decisive action.
IPCC: what AR6 has confirmed
According to the 234 scientists from 66 countries who signed the report, to avoid catastrophic and irreversible effects it’s vital to not go beyond a 1.5 degrees centigrade increase in average global temperatures, caused by greenhouse gas emissions such as CO2 and methane. This limit is already well-known, and the Paris Agreement – the first international treaty on the issue, signed in 2015 – translated it to “well below 2 degrees”.
However, according to the report presented on 9th August, which relates to scientific foundations and evidence, planet Earth has already heated up by 1.1 degrees compared to the period between 1850 and 1900, with a drastic acceleration in recent years. The first workgroup used the most accurate data and projections yet to estimate the carbon budget, which is the volume of greenhouse gases we can still emit before any chance of success goes up in smoke.
The evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions are choking our planet & placing billions of people in danger.
Global heating is affecting every region on Earth, with many of the changes becoming irreversible.
“Today’s report is a code red for humanity,” declared United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres. “The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk. Global heating is affecting every region on Earth, with many of the changes becoming irreversible. We must act now in a decisive way to keep the 1.5-degree limit ‘alive’,” Guterres warned in a statement released to the international press.
If things stay as they are, we will reach and surpass the limit in just twenty years. Therefore, the IPCC scientists remind us, acting now means ensuring that the limit is reached but not surpassed. After all, some of the effects we’re currently seeing and living through, such as floods and wildfires, had not plagued the Earth with such force and consistency for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Heatwaves, meanwhile, will continue to intensify until they become almost three times as frequent, going from being extraordinary events to the new normal in the not-so-distant future (as can be seen in the tweet below on upcoming heatwaves across the world). Other consequences – such as rising sea levels – should already be thought of as irreversible.
“This report reflects extraordinary efforts under exceptional circumstances,” said IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee. “The innovations in this report, and advances in climate science that it reflects, provide an invaluable input into climate negotiations [COP26, ed.] and decision-making.”
New findings in the IPCC report
A careful reading of the report reveals some key points, and above all the clear scientific correlation between the activities of human beings and various phenomena linked to global warming. It is now “unequivocal” that our activities have caused the heating of the atmosphere, the oceans, and the land. We are the main cause of glacial retreat globally since the 1990s and the decrease in Arctic sea ice between 1979 and 1988 and 2010 and 2019.
Ocean and sea acidification, starting in the 1960s, is also our fault. There is also a distinct correlation been human activity and changes in rainfall, and the increased likelihood of complex extreme events since the 1950s was influenced by humans as well. Assessment Report 6 on the state of the climate, which has a significant political value being the expression of governments that are part of the UN, thus unambiguously recognises our role in the climate crisis.
Scientific evidence regarding the water cycle
A lot of attention is given to research on the global water cycle. In fact, according to the IPCC, there will be an increase in the intensity, variability, and severity of phenomena ranging from monsoons to floods, from droughts to storms. While past reports always featured an element of uncertainty, new modelling essentially guarantees that there will be increases in rainfall levels and surface water flows. Average global rainfall on land is projected to rise by 0-5 per cent in the very low greenhouse gas emissions scenario and by 1-13 per cent in the very high greenhouse gas emissions scenario, in the period between 2081 and 2100 compared to 1995 levels. Rainfall is predicted to increase at higher latitudes, in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, and in parts of the monsoon regions, and to diminish in subtropical regions and certain tropical areas. There is a high likelihood that spring snows will start to melt sooner, with higher flow peaks at the expense of summer flows in snow-dominated regions. This is all terrible news for Italy, which will see water scarcity in the Po Valley increase due to earlier snowmelt and glacier shrinkage, and more prolonged droughts – accompanied by a higher risk of wildfires – in the South of the country and its islands.
What will happen to rainfall?
There’s also the risk of storms: the intensity of rainfall (high quantities in very small timeframes) is set to increase by 7 per cent for each degree of temperature increase. Category 4 and 5 hurricanes and cyclones are going to become increasingly frequent, with severe repercussions on countries’ populations and domestic security. This is another one of the report’s most significant new features: it increasingly establishes a connection between extreme weather events and climate change. To assess the impact of these phenomena on health and the economy, however, we need to wait for the second and third chapters of AR6.
Irreversible consequences for seas and mountains
Another certainty is the fact that the effects will be irreversible for centuries, if not for millennia. This is especially true for those linked to the acidification and rising temperatures of ocean waters, the melting of the cryosphere, and rising sea levels. The consequences for marine life still need to be researched in depth. The same goes for permafrost and mountain and polar glaciers, which will require centuries to be restored. If things continue as they are, future generations will be unlikely to be able to admire places like the Forni or Adamello glaciers in the Alps.
The evidence on rising sea levels is also very concerning. In the high-CO2 scenario, the average increase could be between 0.63 and 1.01 metres by 2100 (the lower-emission scenario predicts a “mere” 0.32m-0.62m increase), reaching 1.88 metres by 2050. However, more catastrophic outcomes like “2 metres by 2100 and 5 metres by 2150 in a very high emissions scenario (SSP5-8.5) cannot be ruled out due to the deep uncertainty about ice cap processes”. Sea levels are destined to keep rising, a phenomenon that will last between centuries and millennia due to the continuous heating of ocean depths and that will probably remain high for thousands of years. In the next 2,000 years, average sea levels will increase by approximately 2-3 metres if warming is kept to 1.5 degrees centigrade, between 2 and 6 metres if limited to 2 degrees, and between 19 and 22 metres with a 5-degree increase.
The efforts of the first group will be followed by the work of the second group on the issue of adapting to a changing climate, and the third group’s work on mitigating – meaning cutting – greenhouse gas emissions. The next documents will be published throughout 2022.
UN Secretary Guterres once again sets out what needs to happen: “This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels before they destroy our planet. Countries should also end all new fossil fuel exploration and production, and shift fossil fuel subsidies into renewable energy. By 2030, solar and wind capacity should quadruple and renewable energy investments should triple to maintain a net-zero trajectory by mid-century.”
It doesn't tell us what to do. It is up to us to be brave and take decisions based on the scientific evidence provided in these reports. We can still avoid the worst consequences, but not if we continue like today, and not without treating the crisis like a crisis. 2/2
Stephan Singer, a senior advisor at the Climate Action Network, which unites over 1,500 climate action NGOs, put it more succinctly: “This report has to be the final nail in the coffin of the fossil fuel industry”.
We can still avoid the worst consequences, but not if we continue like today, and not without treating the crisis like a crisis.
Greta Thunberg, climate activist
I can quit when I want
We have wasted too much time on persona, short-term interests. Climate scientists have been telling us what we need to do for over 30 years. And every new report does so even more precisely. Maybe nothing will change after this report either, but if this is the case, then it means that our species is just not able to “quit” fossil fuels. Just like what happens with other addictions. However, as individuals we have proven time and time again that our willpower is able to make us do things that we thought were impossible. Like changing the course of our lives. What we can’t do is to “quit” believing this. It’s a belief that can change the course of history.