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The IPCC climate change report – what it says and what we can do

The world’s largest-ever report about climate change was published today by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations group of nearly 200 leading climate scientists that looked at more than 14,000 scientific papers. It’s pretty grim – but far from hopeless. There are things we all can and must all do. As US Senator Ed Markey says, “We can’t agonize – we must organize.”

What is the IPCC? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is an intergovernmental body of the United Nations founded in 1988. It’s a group of scientists whose findings are endorsed by the world’s governments.

Why is today’s IPCC report important? It’s a comprehensive, up-to-date assessment of how global warming is going to change the world in the coming decades. It’s also the biggest and most important call for global governments to take definitive action to slow the warming. It’s the first major review of climate change science since 2013 and comes ahead of the climate summit, COP26, in Glasgow.

What does the IPCC report say about global warming? Here are the key points, which we took directly from the IPCC’s summary and put them in quotes. (The bolded introduction summaries are ours.)

The IPCC has made note of what they’re sure of – high confidence – and what they’re not as sure of – medium confidence.

  • Humans caused climate change. “Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate. (high confidence).”
  • Greenhouse gas emissions will persist, but reaching net zero will help. “Warming from anthropogenic emissions from the pre-industrial period to the present will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system, such as sea level rise, with associated impacts (high confidence), but these emissions alone are unlikely to cause global warming of 1.5°C (medium confidence)… Reaching and sustaining net zero global anthropogenic CO2 emissions and declining net non-CO2 radiative forcing would halt anthropogenic global warming on multi-decadal timescales (high confidence).”
  • It’s warming, and ultimately it’s in our hands. “Climate-related risks for natural and human systems are higher for global warming of 1.5°C than at present, but lower than at 2°C (high confidence). These risks depend on the magnitude and rate of warming, geographic location, levels of development and vulnerability, and on the choices and implementation of adaptation and mitigation options (high confidence).”

What does the IPCC report say about impacts and risks from climate change?

  • There’s a big difference between 1.5C and 2C. “Climate models project robust differences in regional climate characteristics between present-day and global warming of 1.5°C, and between 1.5°C and 2°C. These differences include increases in: mean temperature in most land and ocean regions (high confidence), hot extremes in most inhabited regions (high confidence), heavy precipitation in several regions (medium confidence), and the probability of drought and precipitation deficits in some regions (medium confidence).”
  • Sea levels will rise, but we have the ability to slow it. “By 2100, global mean sea level rise is projected to be around 0.1 meter lower with global warming of 1.5°C compared to 2°C (medium confidence). Sea level will continue to rise well beyond 2100 (high confidence), and the magnitude and rate of this rise depend on future emission pathways. A slower rate of sea level rise enables greater opportunities for adaptation in the human and ecological systems of small islands, low-lying coastal areas and deltas (medium confidence).”
  • If we lower global warming, we can reduce the impacts on land. “On land, impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems, including species loss and extinction, are projected to be lower at 1.5°C of global warming compared to 2°C. Limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to 2°C is projected to lower the impacts on terrestrial, freshwater and coastal ecosystems and to retain more of their services to humans (high confidence).”
  • We can reduce ocean temperature increases if we take action. “Limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to 2ºC is projected to reduce increases in ocean temperature as well as associated increases in ocean acidity and decreases in ocean oxygen levels (high confidence). Consequently, limiting global warming to 1.5°C is projected to reduce risks to marine biodiversity, fisheries, and ecosystems, and their functions and services to humans, as illustrated by recent changes to Arctic sea ice and warm-water coral reef ecosystems (high confidence).”
  • Climate change is going to affect our lives, but we can lessen its impact. “Climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C and increase further with 2°C.”
  • We have the power to do something about climate change. “Most adaptation needs will be lower for global warming of 1.5°C compared to 2°C (high confidence). There are a wide range of adaptation options that can reduce the risks of climate change (high confidence). There are limits to adaptation and adaptive capacity for some human and natural systems at global warming of 1.5°C, with associated losses (medium confidence). The number and availability of adaptation options vary by sector (medium confidence).” 

What’s the bottom line on the bad news and good news?

The bad news is that some planetary changes are now irreversible. The oceans are going to continue to warm, and glaciers will continue to melt. So no matter what, people living in coastal areas will need to adapt to sea level rise.

Humans have already heated the planet by roughly 1.1C since the 19th century, a result of burning fossil fuels.

The scientists who authored the IPCC report believe that 1.5C will be reached by 2040, no matter what. If emissions aren’t slashed in the next few years, this will happen even earlier. But if we do nothing, it will be much worse.

The good news is that almost every country in the world is signed up to the Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit global warming to well under 2C, and ideally below 1.5C.

And scientists are now certain that net zero will deliver. In other words, positive steps we take will have impact.

So the more we all reduce emissions by 2030, the more livable our planet will be for us, our children, and their descendants.

Here’s the bottom line:

If we cut global emissions by 50% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050, we can stop and possibly reverse global warming.

Maisa Rojas Corradi, a report author and climate scientist at the University of Chile, says [via NPR]:

Is it still possible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees [Celsius]? The answer is yes.

But unless there are immediate, rapid, and large-scale reductions of all greenhouse gases, limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees will be beyond reach.

Are we doomed? No, if we do what we need to do. Dr. Friederike Otto of the University of Oxford and one of the IPCC report’s authors, says [via the BBC]:

Lowering global warming really minimises the likelihood of hitting these tipping points. We are not doomed.

How do we do that? We stop using fossil fuels for transport, electricity, and heating. We switch to renewables and electric cars and other electric appliances. We plant more trees. We stop burning the Amazon.

As US Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), co-author of the Green New Deal resolution and chair of the Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate and Nuclear Safety says in a statement emailed to Electrek about what the US, the second-largest emitter in the world behind China, can do:

We can’t agonize — we must organize, just like the young people across the country and world who are demanding action from their leaders. An intergenerational movement of climate leaders are calling on Congress to include major climate action in the budget reconciliation package — which is our best opportunity to respond with solutions to the impacts outlined by the IPCC. With policies to drive deep cuts in emissions, protect communities from climate impacts, and provide equity and justice to overburdened communities, we can respond to overwhelming evidence and take the necessary action to save our people and our planet.

Electrek’s Take

If you read Electrek, then you know we hammer this point home every day: Electric vehicles and clean energy are vital and inevitable.

The IPCC report gives governments, and private businesses more information and regional guidance, which is empowering. As the US’s The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states an in emailed statement:

NOAA will use the new insights from this report to inform the work it does with communities to prepare for, respond to, and adapt to climate change.

And sustainability technologies firm Turntide Technologies‘ CEO, Ryan Morris, said:

For the world to meet its goals of a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve net-zero by 2050, every business needs to act now. We need to rethink sustainability and focus on reducing consumption through intelligent efficiency.

And while governments and private businesses must take the lead on embracing renewables and clean transport, it’s also up to every single one of us to make changes.

Here’s the good news: Renewables and electric cars are fun – seriously. As some of you know, I got rid of both of our gas cars this summer, and bought my first Tesla Model 3:

Not only am I ecstatic about not spewing emissions, but I’ve never had more fun driving. And I think those of you who read my colleague Micah Toll‘s articles about electric bikes and motorcycles and scooters have probably noticed that he has a lot of fun, too.

You can do your part. Find out how to switch to solar or wind – and watch your electric bill cost drop. Get off the natural gas as quickly as possible. Walk and ride bikes more, drive less, take public transport. And if you can’t drive less, then switch to electric. It’s going to become increasingly easier to do so, and renewables are rapidly getting cheaper.

Our biggest threat is inaction. Take personal responsibility and do what you can. Everything is at stake.

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Avatar for Michelle Lewis Michelle Lewis

Michelle Lewis is a writer and editor on Electrek and an editor on DroneDJ, 9to5Mac, and 9to5Google. She lives in White River Junction, Vermont. She has previously worked for Fast Company, the Guardian, News Deeply, Time, and others. Message Michelle on Twitter or at Check out her personal blog.