CLIMATE: Humans Have Pushed The Climate Into ‘Unprecedented’ Territory – Analysis

 Brady Dennis and Sarah Kaplan | The Washington Post 

More than three decades ago, a collection of scientists assembled by the United Nations first warned that humans were fueling a dangerous greenhouse effect and that if the world didn’t act collectively and deliberately to slow Earth’s warming, there could be “profound consequences” for people and nature alike.

THE SCIENTISTS WERE RIGHT. 

That same body — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — described how humans have altered the environment at an “unprecedented” pace and detailed how catastrophic impacts lie ahead unless the world rapidly and dramatically cuts greenhouse gas reductions.   

The landmark U.N. report states that there is no remaining scientific doubt that humans are fueling climate change. That much is “unequivocal”. The only real uncertainty that remains, its authors say, is whether the world can muster the will to stave off a darker future than the one it already has carved in stone.

The sprawling assessment, compiled by 234 authors relying on more than 14,000 studies from around the globe, bluntly lays out for policymakers and the public the most up-to-date understanding of the physical science on climate change. Released amid a summer of deadly fires, floods and heat waves, it arrives less than three months before a critical summit this November in Scotland, where world leaders face mounting pressure to move more urgently to slow the Earth’s warming.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres called the findings “A CODE RED FOR HUMANITY” and said societies must find ways to embrace the transformational changes necessary to limit warming as much as possible. “We owe this to the entire human family,” he said in a statement. “There is no time for delay and no room for excuses.” 

But so far, the collective effort to slow climate change has proved gravely insufficient. Instead of the sort of emission cuts that scientists say must happen, global greenhouse gas pollution is still growing. Countries have failed to meet the targets they set under the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, and even the bolder pledges some nations recently have embraced still leave the world on a perilous path.

“What the world requires now is real action – Time is NOT on our side.” John F. Kerry, the Biden administration’s special envoy for climate, said in a statement about the findings.

TIME CERTAINLY IS NOT, ACCORDING TO THE REPORT. 

Humans can unleash less than 500 additional gigatons of carbon dioxide — the equivalent of about 10 years of current global emissions — to have an even chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. 

But hopes for remaining below that threshold — the most ambitious goal outlined in the Paris agreement — are undeniably slipping away. The world has already warmed more than 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), with few signs of slowing, and could pass the 1.5-degree mark early in the 2030s.

ALREADY, WE ARE LIVING ON A CHANGED AND CHANGING PLANET. 

Each of the past four decades has been successively warmer than any that preceded it, dating to 1850. Humans have warmed the climate at a rate unparalleled since before the fall of the Roman Empire. To find a time when the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere changed this much this fast, you’d need to rewind 66 million years to the end of the age of the dinosaurs. 

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen to levels not seen in 2 million years, the authors state. The oceans are turning acidic. Sea levels continue to rise. Arctic ice is disintegrating. Weather-related disasters are growing more extreme and affecting every region of the world.

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPACT OF CLIMATE CHANGE 

If the planet warms much more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — a scenario all but certain at the current pace of emissions — such change could trigger the inexorable collapse of the Greenland ice sheet and more than six feet of sea-level rise that could swamp coastal communities. Coral reefs would virtually disappear.

Heat waves that are already deadly will become as much as 5 degrees Fahrenheit hotter. Parts of the Earth that currently slow the pace of warming — such as the ocean absorbing excess heat and clouds reflecting sunlight back into space — will become less able to help us.

“The chances of unknown unknowns become increasingly large,” said Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute and a contributor to Monday’s report. “We don’t have any great comparable analogues in the last 2 million years or so. It’s harder for us to predict exactly what will happen to the Earth’s systems.”

‘ESTABLISHED FACT’ 

The evidence for humanity’s influence on the climate system, once a fiercely debated topic, is now “overwhelming”, the IPCC report states. What began as a scientific hypothesis has become “ESTABLISHED FACT”. 

That deepening certainty shows up not only in the changing composition of the atmosphere and the rising temperature of the oceans, but in signs large and small, from the dwindling of Arctic sea ice to the ever-earlier blossoming of Japan’s famous cherry trees.

The report’s 42-page “summary for policymakers” uses the phrase “virtually certain” nearly a dozen times. The words “high confidence” come up more than 100 times. The rate of sea-level rise, the retreat of ice sheets and glaciers, and the acidity of the oceans are all described as “unprecedented” in the past several thousand years.

Equally important are the unmistakable real-world effects of climate change. Last year rivaled the hottest year in recorded history. Communities around the world have been battered by heat waves, droughts, hurricanes and wildfires so extreme that they cannot be explained by mere natural variability.

Using sophisticated computer models, researchers are increasingly able to pinpoint the role of climate change in particular natural disasters, sometimes within days or weeks of the event. 

Storms such as Houston’s Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and Tropical Cyclone Idai, which killed hundreds of people in Mozambique two years later, bore the unmistakable fingerprints of human-caused warming. The additional heat in the oceans provides more energy for storms, the report says, making intense Category 4 and 5 hurricanes more likely. Warmer air holds more moisture, increasing the amount of rain that falls during these events.

Likewise, scientists say the intense fires and blistering heat waves that have become summertime fixtures in both hemispheres are possible only because of a world altered by human activities. Warming has increased the “thirstiness” of the air, driving catastrophic wildfires in California and Australia over the past several years.

“It’s now become actually quite obvious to people what is happening, because we see it with our own eyes,” said Corinne Le Quéré, a professor of climate science at the University of East Anglia and a contributor to the assessment. “You don’t have to have a PhD. You don’t need to be a climate scientist. You just need to be a person who looks out the window.” 

‘WE’RE GOING INTO UNCHARTED TERRITORY’ 

The IPCC, a science-focused collection of experts from around the globe, does not issue policy recommendations. This U.N. report is merely the first of several scheduled between now and 2022 assessing the mounting effects of climate change and evaluating what it would take for humans to limit warming.

In the best-case scenario, the world rapidly phases out fossil fuels, embraces renewable energy on a massive scale and overhauls how humans work, eat and travel. 

People eliminate emissions of carbon dioxide from coal, oil and gas. Societies find a way to curb powerful but short-lived greenhouse gases — most notably methane, which largely comes from burping cows and leaky fossil fuel facilities, and nitrous oxide, of which a huge amount comes from fertilizers used on farms. Natural systems such as forests and human inventions such as carbon-capture operations pull more and more out of the atmosphere.

In this scenario, the world reaches “net-zero” emissions around the year 2050, and warming stabilizes at about 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Eventually, glaciers stop dwindling and sea-level rise slows. Humans adapt to the new planet we’ve created. 

At 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, air can hold significantly more moisture than it does now, making droughts more likely and extreme rainfall worse.

At 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit), intense heat waves that used to occur about once every 50 years will become annual events. 

Mercifully, the U.N. assessment shows, the world for now seems to be trending away from the most ruinous potential path, as coal-fired power fades, renewable energy increasingly takes root and investors and voters alike demand climate-conscious policies.

But nations have not yet moved quickly enough to meet the Paris agreement goal to remain “well below” 2 degrees Celsius of warming. 

The more people emit, the greater chance of changes that take centuries or millennia to undo, the U.N. report warns. Already, ocean acidification will persist even if the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere declines. At a certain point, the Greenland ice sheet will become so weak it moves into a state of irreversible decline. 

Warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius also carries increased risk of setting off feedback processes that cause climate change to accelerate. Higher temperatures will thaw Arctic permafrost, potentially unleashing carbon that has been locked in a deep freeze for thousands of years. Methane trapped in the deep sea could make its way into the atmosphere. Wildfires could turn millions more acres of carbon-rich forests into a source of additional greenhouse gases. Air quality in many places could continue to worsen.

The IPCC report does not recommend specific warming targets. But as someone who has seen how societies already struggle to cope with climate disasters, Otto urged policymakers to take the difficult steps necessary to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

‘EVERY LITTLE BIT COUNTS’

The U.N. report underscores that humans have a profound opportunity to shape a better future by sharply reducing emissions. But it also spells out how we can no longer avoid some measure of calamity in coming years.

The oceans will continue warming to 2100 and beyond, the authors write. Shrinking seasonal snow cover across the Northern Hemisphere is all but certain. The rate of sea-level rise is increasing and is destined to continue in coming decades. The likelihood and severity of extreme hot weather “will occur throughout the 21st century.”

Yet greenhouse gases that are emitted now could be more difficult to remove later. The report cautions that declining carbon dioxide levels in the air could cause the land and oceans to release carbon it has absorbed. Efforts to pull carbon out of the atmosphere — using natural systems, like reforestation, or mechanical solutions, like machines that store the gas in rocks — probably will require huge amounts of time and energy.

In 2019, global emissions stood higher than in any other year in human history. The drop in pollution caused by economic shutdowns at the start of the coronavirus pandemic proved to be only a blip. Now the world is back on track to emit as much as ever, careening toward an ever hotter and more unpredictable future.

“Every place we look, we are seeing the evidence of past inaction. That should be a wake-up call,” said Jane Lubchenco, deputy director for climate and environment at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “We need to do everything possible to avoid even worse disaster.” 

The U.N. report generated an avalanche of similar reactions, with scientific groups, elected officials and activists from around the world saying leaders can no longer wait to act, given that the scientific evidence about the risks of worsening climate change are clearer than ever.

Meanwhile, the heaviest burdens from climate change have long fallen on the world’s most vulnerable, and on nations that played little role in causing climate change but can least afford to adapt. 

For low-lying islands, rising seas present an ongoing and existential threat. Crippling floods have led to deaths and displacement for hundreds of thousands of people, from Sudan to Uganda. People who are unhoused, impoverished or sick are disproportionately likely to suffer in weather extremes. These disparities will only intensify as the planet continues to warm.

But recent disasters also show that climate impacts can hit without regard for national borders, income level and political clout. The Midwest this month is choking on smoke from wildfires hundreds of miles away in Canada. Germany, one of the world’s wealthiest nations, suffered billions in damage from July’s floods that killed scores of people.

But people should not dwell in regret for the failures of the past, Tebaldi said, or only despair over possibilities that are not yet inescapable. Instead, she urged people to focus on what can still be done, on what can still be salvaged. 

After all, the hard math of science shows that a concerted push by governments and the private sector can still bend the world’s troubling trajectory. Each action to slow the pace of emissions gives society more time to adapt to changes we know are coming. Each degree of warming that humans avoid saves us from climate catastrophes that don’t have to happen.

“Things are going to change for the worse. But they can change less for the worse than they would have, if we are able to limit our footprint now,” Tebaldi said.  “Every little bit counts.”

Dino Grandoni contributed. 

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Comments

  • Clyde Duncan  On 08/11/2021 at 11:44 am

    I posted this some where else – But, it fits just right, here:

    TS Eliot wrote:

    “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.”

    I like this one better:

    “GRADUALLY, THEN SUDDENLY.”

    These lines from Ernest Hemingway’s novel THE SUN ALSO RISES, reveal a lot about the human experience when it comes to success and failure. …

    It is common to the human experience that we are rarely motivated to act unless a crisis is upon us.

  • wally n  On 08/11/2021 at 1:25 pm

    Biggest bunch of horse crap. ( my opinion) Did China,India and the rest of them burning coal and crap into the atmosphere 24/7 feature in the article???We live on one planet, bad decisions affect us all. Before taxpayers shell out $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ to solve a problem with adjustable termination dates, set by criminals PUT A DOME OVER THE ONES DOING THE MOST POLLUTION.
    In the Universe we are nothing more than a grain of sand, things that happen “out there” can cause us major problems.
    Hint Alert… Obama has an 8 million “beach” house…Kerry (hypocrite) has multiple jets..Sanders has “beach” house
    Me personally I am not WILLING TO GIVE ONE PENNY to any government especially, mine, when a slice might end up in central America. Make a contribution, clean your surroundings, clear your your drains, first, before you start pretending you can fix the Universe.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 08/11/2021 at 4:36 pm

    Chee-A-Tow wrote:

    We are destroying our own home.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 08/11/2021 at 4:37 pm

    Pestano wrote:

    Man destroying the world for wealth.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 08/11/2021 at 4:38 pm

    Eddie wrote:

    Any man that sets his clothes alight in his own house while he is inside it, will eventually be overcome by the smoke.

    For all the time mankind lived on Earth as his only home, it has never occurred to him that his destructive acts would have disastrous consequences for him.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 08/11/2021 at 4:39 pm

    Eddie: I suppose that is why we are called “consumers” – All of us!!

    • wally n  On 08/12/2021 at 11:42 am

      You guys have all the information…any truth to this..
      They burn this crap???
      World’s biggest tyre graveyard: Incredible images of Kuwaiti landfill site that is home to SEVEN MILLION wheels and so huge it can be seen from space

      Gigantic holes are dug out from the sandy earth and filled with old tyres every year – there are now over 7 million
      The expanse of rubber is so vast that the sizeable fields are now visible from space
      The European landfill directive means that this type of ‘waste disposal’ would be illegal in the UK
      In Britain all car and truck tyres must be recovered, recycled or reused

      By Daily Mail Reporter

  • Clyde Duncan  On 08/12/2021 at 10:24 pm

    THE ECONOMIST:

    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the first part of its latest assessment report. THE EARTH IS WARMING. Even with a drastic reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions temperatures will probably be 1.5°C above their late-19th century levels by 2050.

    Climate change is under way, the report laments, with all the environmental consequences that brings. The extent of the damage depends on the cumulative build-up of emissions and can be limited if the world strives for net-zero carbon emissions.

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