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The UN Climate Report: “Rapid, Far-Reaching, Unprecedented Changes”

Hal Conte October 19, 2018

Humanity has faced a fork in the road and must undertake “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” in order to prevent a cataclysmic increase in warming, according to a highly publicized new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.). But is any action being planned to mitigate this?

According to the I.P.C.C. report, created with the input and expertise of 40 countries ranging from Portugal to Fiji, even the goals set forward as part of the Paris Climate agreement – a global deal from which the U.S. has now withdrawn – are not enough to prevent global warming from surpassing 1.5 degrees by 2030.

Since the Industrial Revolution ushered in the age of the factory and the assembly line, global temperatures have increased by 1 degree, enough to ensure continued sea level rises and environmental impacts for “centuries to millennia” even if emissions were to stop immediately tomorrow, according to the report.

Moving from 1 to 1.5 degrees is a big deal. Such a shift will displace 31 million to 69 million people globally, create a 70-90 percent decline in coral reefs, create mass poverty and exacerbate hazards for people globally. And currently, we’re on track to surpass this scenario to a massive extent.

If emissions continued at their present rate, global temperatures would skyrocket to 2.7 percent above pre-industrial levels in just 22 years. At these temperatures, over 99 percent of coral reefs would have died off completely, and ice-free Arctic summers would occur multiple times per decade.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences responded to the I.P.C.C. report noting that warming at this rate may even lead to the collapse of Arctic permafrost and the subsequent release of methane trapped underneath, a greenhouse gas far more dangerous than CO2.

All scenarios put forth by the I.P.C.C. to restrict global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees would involve the use of carbon dioxide removal techniques, controversial and largely untested techniques that would amount to geoengineering, which has multiple side-effects on other aspects of the climate, according to the London School of Economics.

The I.P.C.C. claims that there is little political will to undertake the “fundamental systems changes” needed to prevent catastrophe. The U.S. government, under the leadership of Donald Trump, has increased the use of fracking and attempted to shore up the coal industry via deregulation and promotion of extraction on federal lands.

Even the Paris Agreement, which as the I.P.C.C. shows is insufficient, may lose another signatory if Jair Bolsonaro – the far-right congressman leading national polls – becomes president of Brazil, leaving three countries outside the framework of the agreement (Syria has also refused to sign on).

Despite these circumstances, many scientists and environmentalists have proposed potential policy decisions that could help achieve the goal of restricting and reducing emissions, in some cases even without the use of carbon dioxide removal techniques.

Taxes on carbon are one approach recommended by the I.P.C.C. favored by many large energy companies, including both wind and oil companies, although such taxes would have to range into the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars per ton to make an impact, while the U.S. currently has only a $7 per ton rate.

A total ban on new fossil fuel extraction may seem extreme, but for some scientists, it needs to be on the agenda. Many countries in recent years have also set deadlines for the phasing out of fossil-fuel propelled cars, including Britain and China.

Weapons manufacturing and transportation of goods across borders as opposed to local production is also seen by some left-leaning activists as rectifiable problems left out of the I.P.C.C. report that could make a dent if addressed. Additionally, a reduction in methane is seen as a top priority by many researchers.

Among other organizations, the Post-Carbon Institute and the Club of Rome – the latter famous for its landmark 1972 study of human resource use – have suggested an end to or reduction of economic growth and systems based on it. They note that de-emphasizing GDP and focusing on quality of life would keep emissions within a reasonable range.

Whatever steps are taken, the I.P.C.C. has emphasized the necessity of a global cooperative approach to the warming problem, which will be front-and-center at the United Nations Climate Conference set to take place in Poland from December 3 to 14.