From Turkey and Greece, to the USA and China the world is burning and world leaders are still not making the urgent commitments necessary to make a real difference to climate change. There are murmurs of urgency and whispers of a “green industrial revolution,” but when it truly counts, government action falls mortally, pitifully short.
Now everyone is talking about the latest findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading global authority on climate science. Published on Monday, it describes the human impact on the rising temperatures as a "statement of fact", and argues that without radical interventions, we will exceed the temperature limits set by the Paris Agreement this decade.
The long-awaited and comprehensive report from the IPCC lays out the true extent of the crisis in cold clear clarity: that unless there are drastic reductions to greenhouse gas emissions this decade, the catastrophe will be inevitable and irreversible.
According to the BBC, it’s the first major review into climate change since 2013 — and given the timing ahead of November’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, an optimist might say that it could potentially influence policy that could define whether we live on a planet that is hospitable for human beings, or a planet that is not.
The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, called the report "code red for humanity." But how bad are we talking — and what can we do to stem the tide?
Here’s everything you need to know.
3 Key Facts From the IPCC Report
The global surface temperature between 2011 and 2020 was 1.1 degrees Celsius higher than it was between 1850 and 1900.
If the temperature rise exceeds 1.5 degrees extreme heat waves can be expected to happen every five years.
Sea levels can be expected to rise for the rest of the century because of irreversible change that has already happened.
What is the IPCC?
The IPCC is a United Nations body that was founded in 1988 to offer scientific advice that could help shape the climate policies of governments around the world.
You might have heard of their last report — this one from 2018 said there was just 12 years left to limit catastrophic climate change, defined as not exceeding temperature rises of 1.5 degrees Celsius in contrast to pre-industrial levels.
That was three years ago and we’re running out of time. For Monday's report, only its sixth since the IPCC first started, hundreds of scientists and peer-reviewed studies have been brought together to create a definitive resource of everything we know about the climate crisis.
What Does the IPCC Report Say?
In short the IPCC has concluded that climate change is “widespread, rapid, and intensifying.”
Scientists on the panel delved into the available data on the climate from countries around the world. They then used the data to assess the scale of climate change that has already taken place, how different regions around the world have already been affected, and the speed of the change that is likely in the coming decades.
The panel found that climate change is happening quickly — for example, the earth’s temperature has risen faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over the past 2,000 years.
The #IPCC released its latest #ClimateReport today, #ClimateChange 2021: the Physical Science Basis.— IPCC (@IPCC_CH) August 9, 2021
“The role of human influence on the climate system is undisputed.” – Working Group I Co-Chair @valmasdel
Report ➡️ https://t.co/uU8bb4inBB
Watch the video, 🎥 ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/hZOSU1xWQR
They also found that the warming that has already happened is playing havoc with our weather system.
The global surface temperature between 2011 and 2020 was 1.1 degrees Celsius higher than it was between 1850 and 1900, the era when large-scale fossil-fuel burning industry was first developed. As a result, it is "virtually certain", the IPCC concludes, that hot extremes including heat waves have become more frequent and more intense since the 1950s, while cold events have become less frequent and less severe.
That warming is affecting every region on Earth in lots of different ways — and in many cases those changes are irreversible or would take hundreds of years to reverse, the report concludes.
For example, sea level rise will continue throughout the 21st Century, contributing to more frequent flooding in coastal and low-lying areas. Mountain and polar glaciers will continue melting for decades or centuries. Ocean acidification and warming will continue “for least the rest of this century” the report warns.
Over the next 20 years, the Earth’s surface temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, it continues, and without efforts to slash emissions it could be even sooner.
The temperature limit of 1.5 degrees is significant because it is what countries signing up to the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 agreed not to exceed — as beyond it the impact of climate change will be more severe.
For example, extreme heat waves expected once every 50 years without any global heating are already happening every decade, while if the temperature increase exceeds 1.5 degrees they can be expected to happen every 5 years. If the world warms by 2 degrees hotter than pre-industrial levels, extreme heat waves could occur every 3.5 years.
“This report is a reality check,” said the co-chair of the IPCC Working Group I, Valérie Masson-Delmotte. “We now have a much clearer picture of the past, present and future climate, which is essential for understanding where we are headed, what can be done, and how we can prepare,” she explains.
Importantly, the writers of the report do emphasise that if “strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases” occur then the devastating impacts of climate change can be limited but it needs to happen quickly.
Joeri Rogelj, the director of research at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, and an IPCC lead author, said that this report was likely to be the last from the IPPC while there is still time to stay below 1.5 degrees.
He told the Guardian: “This report shows the closer we can keep to 1.5 degrees, the more desirable the climate we will be living in, and it shows we can stay within 1.5 degress but only just – only if we cut emissions in the next decade,” he said.
How Did We Get Here?
The conclusions of this report could not be clearer: climate change is happening and it was caused by human activity, namely the burning of fossil fuels and release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Modelling going back to the start of the industrial revolution, taken as 1850, shows that without “human factors” in the time since, the Earth’s temperature would not have risen so much.
One of the report’s authors, professor Ed Hawkin from the University of Reading, UK, said: “We cannot be any more certain; it is unequivocal and indisputable that humans are warming the planet."
It’s taken some time to get to the level of understanding we have now about climate change. The first concerns about a possible “greenhouse effect” caused by a build-up of gases in the atmosphere were put forward by scientists in the US in the 1960s, and the term “global warming” was coined in 1975.
In the years since, ever more evidence has mounted that we need radical change to stop relying on fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy to run our industries, power our transport, and warm our buildings.
Protesters and pressure groups have consistently called for change but often international summits struggle to find agreements. The last such summit, the annual United Nations climate change conference known as COP25, which took place in December 2019, ended in deadlock with countries struggling to agree on the amount of carbon emissions they would cut.
What Have Climate Activists Said About the Report?
Climate activists and experts have hailed this latest IPCC report for the amount of detail it provides — though many add that a lot of this information was already known, it has just been ignored by policy-makers.
Greta Thunberg has Tweeted that it “confirms what we already know from thousands of previous studies and reports, that we are in an emergency.”
“It is up to us to be brave and take decisions based on the scientific evidence provided,” she adds.
Climate campaigners from the international NGO Greenpeace have suggested that this incredibly detailed report will be useful evidence in future court cases campaigners hope to bring against companies and governments that ignore the harm they perpetuate by not changing.
“We’ll be taking this report with us to the courts,” said Kaisa Kosonen, a climate policy advocate at Greenpeace.
“By strengthening the scientific evidence between human emissions and extreme weather the IPCC has provided new, powerful means to hold the fossil fuel industry and governments directly responsible for the climate emergency,” she told the Guardian. “One only needs to look at our recent court victory against Shell to realise how powerful IPCC science can be.
What Must Governments Do?
The IPCC report comes with a summary for policy-makers which outlines the severity of what will likely happen if no action is taken.
It highlights that changes in the climate system will increase and be more problematic in direct correlation to increases in global warming. Those scenarios include more heatwaves and heavy rain, more agricultural droughts and the likelihood of more tropical cyclones, along with a reduction in Arctic sea ice, snow cover, and permafrost, the report says.
To avert these problems the world needs to reach “at least net zero carbon dioxide emissions, along with strong reductions in other greenhouse gas emissions” the summary recommends.
It is vital therefore that progress is made at the next UN climate conference, COP26, which is taking place in Glasgow, UK, this November. World leaders will gather to decide their Nationally Determined Contributions, which are their greenhouse gas reduction targets, and decided upon strategies to transform their economies to do so.
Governments of wealthy countries, as most responsible for climate change so far, must do more, and provide climate finance for lower-income countries to make the adaptations they need.
And in terms of their domestic policies, governments must find ways to help populations live more sustainably — for example refurbishing homes to make them more efficient, encouraging green transport, and make it easier for people to eat a plant-based diet, are just some examples.
How Can I Help?
One way you can help is to raise your voice through Global Citizen. Call on world leaders to do more to defend the planet and sign our petition calling on business leaders to step up and make meaningful changes to halve emissions by 2030.
You can join the Global Citizen Live campaign to defeat poverty and defend the planet by taking action here, and become part of a movement powered by citizens around the world who are taking action together with governments, corporations, and philanthropists to make change.