FROM THE FIELD
“Urgency. Gravity. Hope.” World’s Top Climate Report Highlights Dire Need for Climate Action
On March 19, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) approved the Summary for Policymakers of the Synthesis Report of its Sixth Assessment Report. This document integrates six reports that the IPCC has issued in recent years and highlights the disastrous current and future impacts of climate change around the world. It also paves a path forward that can protect us and limit the harms of climate change—but only if governments are willing to take it.
The IPCC was created in 1988 by the United Nations Environment Programme and World Meteorological Organization to provide governments around the world with scientific reports they can use to develop effective climate policies. The IPCC currently has 195 member countries and their reports are written to be usable for governments at all levels, from city governments to multinational governments like the European Union. In recent years, civil society organizations and private firms have made increasing use of the reports as well.
Since its inception, the IPCC has released six assessment reports, covering “the state of scientific, technical and socio-economic knowledge on climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for reducing the rate at which climate change is taking place,” according to their website. Nine years after the previous report, the synthesis report came out this week on March 19 after three years of work from scientists, climate organizations, and governments.
The process of producing and approving the report is long and arduous. First, the scope and outline are defined by experts and approved by governments. Next, experts are nominated to be lead authors and chapter heads (called “coordinating lead authors”) who work on writing and editing the chapters of their report. Finally, a Summary for Policymakers is created based on the report, and governments conduct a line-by-line approval of the summary. Zinta Zommers, one of the lead authors and a humanities affairs officer with the United Nations, said in an interview with GlacierHub that “there were a total of 1,433 hours of meetings to get this report approved,” not even including the time spent writing the report. She also highlighted that these roles are unpaid—meaning experts have to work on these reports on top of their already busy lives—but it’s worth it to create a more livable future for young people like her daughter.
On Sunday, after a full week of negotiations that went two days past when the IPCC session was scheduled to end, delegates from each IPCC country approved the final line of text in the Summary for Policymakers and voted to approve the assessment synthesis report. During the approval process, Zommers says, “scientists have to defend each sentence before governments and push back any requests that are not supported by science.” As soon as the last line was approved, applause erupted from the delegates, followed by a standing ovation for the lead authors and IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee from South Korea.
Zommers said the theme of the report can be summarized as “Urgency. Gravity. Hope.” The report spells out the catastrophic point we have reached with climate change and the failure to properly address climate change, but it also highlights the actions that we can take to mitigate the harms and protect our communities. Debbie Ley, a contributing author and an economic affairs officer with the United Nations, echoed this in her interview with GlacierHub, saying “the pace and scale of climate action are insufficient to tackle climate change” but that “adaptation options are feasible and effective today” as long as we start now. In the future, Ley explains, these options will be more costly and less effective.
According to both Zommers and Ley, humanity is not on track to remain within the 1.5 degree C goal, and we will likely exceed it in the early 2030s. Surpassing the 1.5 degree threshold will dramatically increase the risks of food and water shortages, extreme weather events, and sea level rises. For comparison, 1.5C of warming is equivalent to 2.7F. In an interview with the New York Times, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe used a fever as an analogy: “Think about how much worse you feel when you run a fever of 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit, 2.7 degrees above normal. That fever is the equivalent of what the planet is facing.”
Ley highlighted that already we have seen more deadly weather patterns like hurricanes and floods, wildfires that are increasing in intensity and frequency, and an increase in climate refugees as a result of these changes. Glacier retreat and polar ice cap melt are leading to increases in sea levels that are displacing coastal communities. According to the report, “above 1.5oC of global warming, limited freshwater resources pose potential hard adaptation limits for regions dependent on glacier and snow melt.”
However, both Ley and Zommers emphasize that the final section of the report offers hope. Since the previous report, “policies and laws addressing [climate] mitigation have consistently expanded,” said Ley. Still, more climate-resilient development rooted in diverse knowledges—including scientific, Indigenous, and local knowledges—is necessary for addressing the climate crisis. Zommers explained that, “by 2050, comprehensive strategies across [transport, industry, building, and food] sectors have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40-70%,” making innovation in these sectors vital to addressing and mitigating the harms of climate change.
While individual actions are not sufficient to tackle climate change on their own, Zommers highlighted that they can accelerate action. “Of the 60 actions assessed, the biggest individual contribution comes from walking and cycling as well as using electrified transport,” she says. Effective climate action is not just limited to national or international governments; city and state/provincial governments can make considerable contributions to the fight against climate change by moving away from fossil fuel use, making their region more friendly to walking and biking, and divesting from corporations that support fossil fuel use.
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While the climate situation is dire, the IPCC report provides actionable solutions for governments and individuals to address climate change. We have an increasingly small window to address climate change, and action needs to ramp up now if we want to provide a livable planet for current and future generations. This report is a warning, but it also provides a large number of options which countries can use to create a path forward. The path is difficult, but many governments around the world have already started down it. If followed, it can lead humanity to a better future.
GlacierHub is a climate communication initiative led by Ben Orlove, an anthropologist at the Columbia Climate School. Many of GlacierHub's writers are Climate School students or alumni.