This week, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reaffirmed what scientists, advocates, and scholars have been telling us for years: our planet is in dire straits, and human activity (the burning of fossil fuels) is “unequivocally” the cause. This first phase, called Working Group I, of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), covers the physical science of climate change and the state of our climate right now. The IPCC assessments, which are compiled by top scientists and experts on a volunteer basis, go through a rigorous review process and are subject to public comments ahead of finalization. They are some of the most significant pieces of international climate science to date.
The findings of the first phase of their latest assessment are jarring. Authors drew from nearly 14,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers to synthesize the latest climate science, and it leaves no room for misinterpretation. The outlook is grim, but only if we let it stay that way.
The report paints a bleak image of a future with no significant reductions in potent planet-warming emissions — namely carbon dioxide and methane — or efforts towards decarbonization. But, it does maintain that there is still time to avoid the worst-case scenario for climate change, and more importantly, it offers us fresh ammunition in the fight for our future.
The AR6 packs attention-grabbing headlines, many of which made waves in media outlets.
The report first sets out to create a foundation for what we already know and have observed. It confirms the warming that has already occurred, which is an estimated 1.1℃, and how the world is barreling towards the highly-discussed threshold of 1.5℃ of planetary warming. Additionally, the report highlights that “each of the last four decades has been successively warmer than any decade that preceded it since 1850.” The authors make clear that the warming that has already occurred is impacting systems today, with the effects playing out in the form of severe heat waves, extreme cold, unprecedented wildfires, and other extreme weather events. As climate change causes additional warming, the effects of a warmer world will only intensify and likely compound its impacts.
Against the backdrop of natural changes to our climate, the rapid changes observed since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution are unprecedented. The report states: “Since 1750, increases in carbon dioxide (47%) and methane (156%) concentrations far exceed, and increases in nitrous oxide (23%) are similar to, the natural multi-millennial changes between glacial and interglacial periods over at least the past 800,000 years.” The rate of accelerated warming is unparalleled, even in comparison to the observed natural climate change that had previously brought on eras of extreme heat and cold hundreds of thousands of years ago. It serves to confirm that fossil fuels are the driver of this crisis.
These are only a handful of the findings included in the AR6, but they all indicate that we need to reduce planet-warming emissions. Immediate, large-scale decarbonization could avoid warming beyond 2°C, which would mean that there will be increases in average global temperatures already baked in. Without deep cuts to emissions, additional warming will increase the instability and variability of our systems, which would be a recipe for disaster for life on Earth, according to the report.
Developments Since 2013
With scientific and analytic advancements since the release of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment in 2013, researchers have been able to capture a clearer picture of historical changes to our climate as well as current changes. These developments feed into the synthesis in the latest assessment, which enables the authors to be more informed on how current emissions scenarios may play out in the future.
In the AR6, authors frequently use the words “virtually certain,” “extremely likely,” or “high confidence” to add context to findings. What does this tell us? It indicates that the consensus on climate change has never been stronger. It tells us that yes, climate change is happening. Yes, it’s caused by fossil fuels. And yes, it’s going to have severe impacts.
Other developments include an improved analysis of natural carbon sinks — ecosystems that are particularly adept at sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and helping to regulate the carbon cycle (think rainforests, coral reefs, and wetlands). This latest research indicates that carbon sinks are becoming less efficient, and will continue to become inefficient as the planet warms and we emit additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We’re losing natural tools to mitigate the climate crisis, tools we desperately need to achieve sufficient levels of emissions reductions. These changes are often irreversible, or would take millennia to be reversed.
AR6 also highlights the rise in methane emissions, a much more potent planet-warming gas than carbon emissions that also comes from burning fossil fuels. As mentioned above, methane concentrations in the atmosphere have risen 156 percent since 1750. While the considerable focus on climate action has been carbon dioxide emissions, the report indicates that we must also focus on methane emissions to achieve critical climate goals.
Beyond the Alarmist Headlines
IPCC reports often gain a lot of media attention, which is good and bad. Good because it can help communicate the latest findings around climate science and the need to act, but bad in that it demonstrates the continual gaps in our climate communications. Many headlines on articles frame the new AR6 as a “code red for humanity.”
While it’s true that action on the climate crisis is needed now more than ever, the message of “code red” only perpetuates the climate alarmism that we know doesn’t help solve the problem. It works against us. While the report itself does well in terms of messaging strategies, the media still has a ways to go in both messaging and covering these climate events. The media is inundated with IPCC coverage, but news outlets often don’t regularly cover climate change at all. Emily Atkin writes in her recent HEATED newsletter, “If this is the only day we communicate climate science to the public, it’s no wonder people don’t understand the problem.”
IPCC reports are hard to digest, and this article doesn’t go nearly as in-depth on the report as many others. Below is a small resource hub, which is meant to provide additional readings and threads on the IPCC report, ways to take care of yourself, and pathways for immediate action.
- The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report
- “Scientists react: What are the key new insights from the IPCC’s WG1 report?” | Carbon Brief
- “Key takeaways from the new IPCC report,” | Yale Climate Connections
- “A Hotter Future Is Certain, Climate Panel Warns. But How Hot Is Up to Us.” | New York Times
- “Some Irreversible Change to the Climate Can Still be Headed Off, Report Says “| National Geographic
- Video: Dr. Michael Mann Discusses the IPCC AR6 on BBC
The era of rapid climate change has begun.
Both a rapid escalation of consequences, and a rapid escalation of solutions.
Time has run out for anything but radical change.
— Eric Holthaus (@EricHolthaus) August 9, 2021
- “It’s Never Been Easier to Call Your Senators and Demand Climate Action” | Earther
- “Crunch time: this is America’s last chance at serious climate policy for a decade” | Volts
Hi, it’s your friendly neighborhood climate scientist. Facing the #climatecrisis is tough! Here’s the essentials you need to know, tips for finding where you can contribute with purpose and meaning to the work needed, and evidence-based high-impact climate actions. A THREAD: 1/n pic.twitter.com/76m1gtLSIK
— Prof. Kimberly Nicholas (@KA_Nicholas) August 9, 2021
The new IPCC report comes out today. You may feel any number of things: anxiety, fear, anger, numbness, grief, determination, hope. If you’re overwhelmed, it’s okay to not read the headlines. But whatever you feel, use this to feed the fire in your belly. Don’t let it go out.
— Dr. Jacquelyn Gill (@JacquelynGill) August 9, 2021