Nations have delayed curbing their fossil-fuel emissions for so long that they can no longer stop global warming from intensifying over the next 30 years, though there is still a short window to prevent the most harrowing future, a major new United Nations scientific report has concluded.
Humans have already heated the planet by roughly 1.1 degrees Celsius, or 2 degrees Fahrenheit, since the 19th century, largely by burning coal, oil and gas for energy. And the consequences can be felt across the globe: This summer alone, blistering heat waves have killed hundreds of people in the United States and Canada, floods have devastated Germany and China, and wildfires have raged out of control in Siberia, Turkey and Greece.
But that’s only the beginning, according to the report, issued on Monday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of scientists convened by the United Nations. Even if nations started sharply cutting emissions today, total global warming is likely to rise around 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next two decades, a hotter future that is now essentially locked in.
At 1.5 degrees of warming, scientists have found, the dangers grow considerably. Nearly 1 billion people worldwide could swelter in more frequent life-threatening heat waves. Hundreds of millions more would struggle for water because of severe droughts. Some animal and plant species alive today will be gone. Coral reefs, which sustain fisheries for large swaths of the globe, will suffer more frequent mass die-offs.
“We can expect a significant jump in extreme weather over the next 20 or 30 years,” said Piers Forster, a climate scientist at the University of Leeds and one of hundreds of international experts who helped write the report. “Things are unfortunately likely to get worse than they are today.”
Not all is lost, however, and humanity can still prevent the planet from getting even hotter. Doing so would require a coordinated effort among countries to stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by around 2050, which would entail a rapid shift away from fossil fuels starting immediately, as well as potentially removing vast amounts of carbon from the air. If that happened, global warming would likely halt and level off at around 1.5 degrees Celsius, the report concludes.
But if nations fail in that effort (keep using fossil fuels), global average temperatures will keep rising — potentially passing 2 degrees, 3 degrees or even 4 degrees Celsius, compared with the preindustrial era. The report describes how every additional degree of warming brings far greater perils, such as ever more vicious floods and heat waves, worsening droughts and accelerating sea-level rise that could threaten the existence of some island nations. The hotter the planet gets, the greater the risks of crossing dangerous “tipping points,” like the irreversible collapse of the immense ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica.
“There’s no going back from some changes in the climate system,” said Ko Barrett, a vice-chair of the panel and a senior adviser for climate at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But, she added, immediate and sustained emissions cuts “could really make a difference in the climate future we have ahead of us.”
The report, approved by 195 governments and based on more than 14,000 studies, is the most comprehensive summary to date of the physical science of climate change. It will be a focal point when diplomats gather in November at a U.N. summit in Glasgow to discuss how to step up their efforts to reduce emissions.
A growing number of world leaders, including President Biden, have endorsed the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, though current policies in the major polluting countries are still far off-track from achieving that target. The 10 biggest emitters of greenhouse gases are China, the United States, the European Union, India, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia, Iran and Canada.
The new report leaves no doubt that humans are responsible for global warming, concluding that essentially all of the rise in global average temperatures since the 19th century has been driven by nations burning fossil fuels, clearing forests and loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane that trap heat.
The changes in climate to date have little parallel in human history, the report said. The last decade is quite likely the hottest the planet has been in 125,000 years. The world’s glaciers are melting and receding at a rate “unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years.” Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have not been this high in at least 2 million years.
Ocean levels have risen 8 inches on average over the past century, and the rate of increase has doubled since 2006. Heat waves have become significantly hotter since 1950 and last longer in much of the world. Wildfire weather has worsened across large swaths of the globe. Bursts of extreme heat in the ocean — which can kill fish, seabirds and coral reefs — have doubled in frequency since the 1980s.
In recent years, scientists have also been able to draw clear links between global warming and specific severe weather events. Many of the deadly new temperature extremes the world has seen — like the record-shattering heat wave that scorched the Pacific Northwest in June — “would have been extremely unlikely to occur without human influence on the climate system,” the report says. Greenhouse gas emissions are noticeably making some droughts, downpours and floods worse.
Tropical cyclones have likely become more intense over the past 40 years, the report said, a shift that cannot be explained by natural variability alone.
And as global temperatures keep rising, the report notes, so will the hazards. Consider a dangerous heat wave that, in the past, would have occurred just once in a given region every 50 years. Today, a similar heat wave can be expected every 10 years, on average. At 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, those heat waves will strike every 5 years and be significantly hotter. At 4 degrees of warming, they will occur nearly annually.
Or take sea level rise. At 1.5 degrees of warming, ocean levels are projected to rise another 1 to 2 feet this century, regularly inundating many coastal cities with floods that in the past would have occurred just once a century. But if temperatures keep increasing, the report said, there is a risk that the vast ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland could destabilize in unpredictable ways, potentially adding another three feet of sea-level rise this century in the worst case.
Further unpredictable changes may be in store. For example, a crucial ocean circulation system in the Atlantic Ocean, which helps stabilize the climate in Europe, is now starting to slow down. While the panel concluded with “medium confidence” that the system was unlikely to collapse abruptly this century, it warned that if the planet keeps heating up, the odds of such “low likelihood, high impact outcomes” would rise.
“It’s not like we can draw a sharp line where, if we stay at 1.5 degrees, we’re safe, and at 2 degrees or 3 degrees it’s game over,” said Robert Kopp, a climate scientist at Rutgers University who helped write the report. “But every extra bit of warming increases the risks.”
Experts have estimated that current policies being pursued by world governments will put the world on track for roughly 3 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century. That has ramped up pressure on countries to make more ambitious pledges, beyond what they agreed to under an international climate agreement struck in Paris in 2015.
If nations follow through on more recent promises — like Mr. Biden’s April pledge to eliminate America’s net carbon emissions by 2050 or China’s vow to become carbon neutral by 2060 — then something closer to 2 degrees Celsius of warming might be possible. Additional action, such as sharply reducing methane emissions from agriculture and oil and gas drilling, could help limit warming below that level.
“The report leaves me with a deep sense of urgency,” said Jane Lubchenco, deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “Now is the critical decade for keeping the 1.5 target within reach.”
While the broad scientific understanding of climate change has not changed drastically in recent years, scientists have made several key advances. Computer models have become more powerful. And researchers have collected a wealth of new data, deploying satellites and ocean buoys and gaining a clearer picture of the Earth’s past climate by analyzing ice cores and peat bogs.
That has allowed scientists to refine their projections and conclude with greater precision that Earth is likely to warm between 2.5 degrees and 4 degrees Celsius for every doubling of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
The new report also explores in greater detail how global warming will affect specific regions of the world. For example, while only one corner of South America to date has had a detectable rise in droughts that can harm agriculture, such damaging dry spells are expected to become much more common across the continent if global average temperatures increase by 2 degrees Celsius.
The focus on regional effects is one of the most important new aspects of this report, said Valérie Masson-Delmotte, a climate scientist at University of Paris-Saclay and a co-chair of the group that produced the report. “We show that climate change is already acting in every region, in multiple ways,” she said.
Past climate reports have focused mainly on large-scale global changes, which has made it hard for countries and businesses to take specific steps to protect people and property. To help with such planning, the panel on Monday released an interactive atlas showing how different countries could be transformed as global temperatures rise.
“It’s very critical to provide society, decision makers and leaders with precise information for every region,” Dr. Masson-Delmotte said.
The new report is part of the sixth major assessment of climate science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was created in 1988. A second report, set to be released in 2022, will detail how climate change might affect aspects of human society, such as coastal cities, farms or health care systems. A third report, also expected next year, will explore more fully strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and halt global warming.
Brad Plumer is a climate reporter specializing in policy and technology efforts to cut carbon dioxide emissions. At The Times, he has also covered international climate talks and the changing energy landscape in the United States. @bradplumer
Henry Fountain specializes in the science of climate change and its impacts. He has been writing about science for The Times for more than 20 years and has traveled to the Arctic and Antarctica. @henryfountain • Facebook
A version of this article appears in print on Aug. 9, 2021, Section A, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Hotter Future Is Now Inevitable, A U.N. Report Says. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/09/climate/climate-change-report-ipcc-un.html
** Heat planning https://thehill.com/opinion/energy-environment/564884-how-do-we-manage-a-hotter-reality-and-deadly-heatwaves
there were more than 2,000 heat-related emergency department visits in Washington alone and health care services were overwhelmed. Far worse, the death toll stands at over 1,000, of which more than 800 occurred in British Columbia, where the heat was most intense and insistent; the overall toll is certain to rise as deaths from heart attacks, respiratory disease and other causes are connected to the extreme heat. This was a massive disease outbreak, and nearly all these deaths could have been prevented.
Experience in hundreds of cities worldwide demonstrates that preparedness — in the form of heat early warning systems and action plans — saves lives. For example, mortality during the 2006 heatwave in France was markedly lower than expected based on the devastating 2003 heatwaves — the difference was the result of a national heatwave plan and associated preventive measures.
Heat action plans include two basic components: early warning and response systems, and longer-term plans for modifying the built environment to be more resilient in a warmer future.
Meteorological forecasts generally give adequate warning of extreme heat, and we know from epidemiological studies who is at risk and at what temperatures. Early warning and response plans move beyond decisions on the temperature threshold at which warnings are issued, to a comprehensive all-of-society approach that considers and bolsters local capacities. Plans should include at least:
- • an alert system
- • identification and mapping of high-risk residents (e.g., elders, those living alone, those with chronic diseases or disabilities, those in hotspot neighborhoods, the homeless and outdoor workers)
- • education and capacity building activities in advance of the heat season
- • a communication plan designed to reach both high-risk residents and those who provide outreach and support (e.g., buddy systems and disaster registries)
- • plans for working with service providers and bolstering response capacity
- • establishment of cooling centers and strategies for getting people to them
- • opportunities for people to cool off safely in outdoor settings
- • plans for modifying certain outdoor activities such as school sports practices and construction work
- • contingency plans for power outages
- • monitoring, evaluation and learning from such events
These plans need to be co-designed and co-implemented involving not just health departments and meteorological services, but also emergency managers, fire and emergency medical services, utilities, social services, schools and universities, hospitals, and agencies and organizations working with marginalized communities, elderly care, and the unhoused. Systems will vary from location to location. State and national agencies can facilitate coordination and help ensure consistency of information provided. Plans need to be developed in advance and tested through drills and table-top stress tests. After heat events, comprehensive evaluation should be pursued.
Longer-term built environment strategies range in scale from buildings to entire metro regions.
At the building scale, “cool roofs” that reflect rather than absorb heat and outdoor window shades can help maintain cooler internal temperatures and reduce cooling needs. Air conditioning, preferably using energy-efficient heat pumps, saves lives during heat waves.
At the neighborhood scale, smart surfaces like light-colored pavement reduce heating, and shade over sidewalks and in other public spaces helps protect people from heat. Vegetation is important; parks and streets with plenty of tree canopy can be more than 10 degrees cooler than unvegetated parts of a city. Bodies of water also provide a cooling effect; pools and “spray parks” can give relief, though drowning risk needs to be addressed. These features help to counteract the “heat island effect” — whereby cities are substantially hotter than surrounding countryside because of dark surfaces, lack of vegetation, and local heat generation. In cities where heat is accompanied by increasing water scarcity — say, across much of the U.S. Southwest — design strategies need to reckon with multiple tradeoffs.
It’s not just the heat: vulnerability is increasing. Around the world, more people are living in cities (a process partly driven by rural-to-urban migration when climate change ravages agriculture) — and cities are especially susceptible to extreme heat.
Some of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. are in our hottest places. Populations are aging — and older people are at particular risk. Water supplies are dwindling, constraining basic protective actions such as planting and maintaining tree canopies. And poverty, another risk factor during extreme heat, remains a persistent problem. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 34 million Americans, or 10.5 percent of the population, were officially classified as living in poverty, and more than twice that number lived in near-poverty. These numbers are likely to have increased since the starts of the pandemic. Poverty substantially increases the risk of dying in a heat wave. Strategies like avoiding power shutoffs for unpaid bills during high-heat periods and subsidizing utility bills can help.
This is, by any measure, an emergency. We need to manage the unavoidable, with heatwave preparedness systems and by building our communities in ways that help us withstand more extreme heat. But at the same time, we need to look at root causes: our ongoing contributions to a hotter, more dangerous world, from burning fossil fuels. Halting these practices is primary prevention — the definitive long-term solution to places too hot to bear.
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Kristie L. Ebi, Ph.D., MPH, is a professor at University of Washington’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. She has been conducting research and practice on the health risks of climate variability and change for nearly 25 years, focusing on understanding sources of vulnerability; estimating current and future health risks of climate change; designing adaptation policies and measures to reduce risks in multi-stressor environments; and estimating the health co-benefits of mitigation policies.
Howard Frumkin, MD, MPH, DrPH, is a public health physician, former dean of Public Health at the University of Washington and former director of CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health.
Jeremy Hess, MD, MPH, is a practicing emergency medicine physician and professor of emergency medicine and public health. He directs the University of Washington’s Center for Health.TAGS CLIMATE CHANGEPUBLIC HEALTHEXTREME HEATEXTREME WEATHERDROUGHTHEAT
It’s Time To Make Polluters Pay
It’s a simple rule that we all learn as kids: when you make a mess, you’ve got to clean it up. So why is it that the big polluters who have made a mess of our climate still get to pollute for free?
Fossil fuel corporations like ExxonMobil have known for decades that their pollution was causing catastrophic climate impacts, but instead of paying a price for the damage they’ve done, they’ve gotten to rake in massive profits.
That could finally change thanks to a new piece of legislation introduced by Senators Van Hollen, Markey, and Whitehouse called the Polluters Pay Climate Fund, which would require big polluters like Exxon, Chevron and Shell to pay a fee associated with their fair share of historic emissions.
As written, the plan would generate $500 billion over the next ten years, money that could be used to help transition the United States away from fossil fuels, deliver environmental justice, and help communities adapt to the impacts of climate change.
Only the largest fossil fuel companies, those who have caused at least .05% of historic emissions, would pay the fee, making it extremely difficult for them to pass along the cost to consumers (if the oil majors tried to raise gas prices, smaller companies could undercut them).
An oil company like ExxonMobil would likely pay around $5 billion a year under the plan, a small contribution considering the profits they’ve made at our expense. In fact, the plan is explicitly written to leave the door open for other lawsuits and legislation that could inflict even greater penalties on fossil fuel corporations.
While the Polluters Pay Climate Fund is new, the principle of requiring businesses or individuals to pay for their pollution is an old one. Most people pay a fee or taxes to get their trash picked up. Businesses pay a penalty when they’re caught dumping illegally into the street or a river. For decades, government programs like Superfund have required companies to clean up their toxic waste or pay the government to do it for them. By getting to pollute our atmosphere for free, fossil fuel corporations are the exception to these common sense rules that protect our communities and the environment.
Now, as the costs of the climate crisis and pollution continue to mount, it’s time to make these big polluters pay for the damage they’ve done. The Polluters Pay Climate Fund would be a step in the right direction, which is why groups across the country have endorsed the plan and are pushing Democrats to include it as part of their budget reconciliation package.
In a leaked tape released earlier this month, one of Exxon’s top lobbyists bragged about how the corporation had blocked any serious corporate tax increases or major investments in clean energy as part of the infrastructure negotiations. The Polluters Pay Climate Fund is a chance for our representatives to show us that they aren’t just fish caught on Exxon’s hook, but leaders who are willing to hold big polluters accountable.
This Week We Showed What Grassroots Movements Can Do
No one thought this would work. But it did.
This week, the limitless power of people was on full display from the steps of the US House of Representatives.
When Congresswomen Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined me on the top of that marble staircase last Friday night, the doors to the chamber locked behind us, we sat shocked in disbelief. We could not comprehend how Congress had left for August recess after failing to pass legislation to extend the eviction moratorium. My adrenaline was pumping, I felt like I needed to take off running until we found a solution. It was a familiar feeling — one rooted in trauma. I’ve been evicted three times in my life — once following a violent domestic assault in which a former partner left me for dead.
I’ve lived out of my car for months with my two babies. I’ve seen my belongings in trash bags along my backseat. I know what that notice on the door means. Cold from the elements or wondering where I could find a bathroom, I’ve wondered who was speaking up in DC for people in my situation. I never knew who had the resources to make this situation end. Now that I was in Congress myself, a member of one of the three branches of our government in a position to act, I knew we couldn’t leave.
With a camping chair in one arm and my phone in the other, I invited my colleagues to return to DC and join me on the stairs of our chamber.
With a camping chair in one arm and my phone in the other, I invited my colleagues to return to DC and join me on the stairs of our chamber. At first it was just me and my staff. Then my sisters in service, community members, friends and colleagues turned out in a show of force I could never have foreseen.
By Tuesday, we had welcomed dozens of House and Senate colleagues, moderate and progressive, in pouring summer rain, cold of the night, and intense midday heat, all in the service of a single message: keeping people in their homes as the eviction moratorium lapsed.
For the first two days, we sat upright—barred from laying down, per Capitol grounds regulations—and used every platform and organizing tool we could to get the word out and keep the pressure on. As the week went on, we became barred from even sitting in chairs. No one thought this would work. We were junior House members, activists, neighbors, and people passing by, engaged in a movement we couldn’t yet comprehend. Yet, in just five days, our movement pulled out a victory from the most powerful office in our country. The Biden administration announced a new eviction freeze that would help Americans in places experiencing high spread of Covid-19 cases, which is the majority of counties in the US, through October 3.
When I walked away from the steps Wednesday morning and sat down on my flight home to St. Louis, it finally hit me: we did it.
I thought of the nearly 8,700 households in my St. Louis district that were already on the eviction docket as the moratorium expired. Those households, many with children, will now be able to rest safely in their homes, while the remaining $43.5 billion in emergency rental assistance is distributed by states and localities.
I thought of the movement working to save Black lives, which we galvanized on the streets of Ferguson in 2014. We spent 400 days protesting and showed the world what is possible when you show up for what is right and do not leave until change is made. We made our voices heard at the highest levels of our government.
I thought of the regular, everyday people who showed up, stayed up, and helped fuel this powerful movement. Our votes, our voices and our volition will never again be taken for granted.
After an election year in which Black, brown, Indigenous, queer, and other marginalized Americans organized and turned out in record numbers to deliver the presidency to Joe Biden — only to see voting rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, immigrant rights, police reform, and so much more get blocked in the Senate by the filibuster — our victory has deepened my belief that change is not only possible, but achievable.
Now that we have again demonstrated what grassroots movements are capable of, there is no limit to what we can do. The change that we have been marching, organizing, and pushing for is within reach. We just have to take it.
“you were born at just the right moment to change everything.”
IPCC August 2021 release: Scientists from all 195 nations issued a consensus climate change report showing irrefutable and irreversible damage to the environment and extreme danger of remaining on the current path, continuing to drill for and support and accommodate the use and further investment in fossil fuels or fossil fueled infrastructure. The report was based on more than 14,000 studies. The planet now appears on track to pass a critical threshold. Even if humanity rapidly slashes greenhouse gas emissions, the report found the planet is still likely to warm past 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) sometime in the early 2030s. Scientists warned exceeding that limit will result in consequences that could push human society to a variety of breaking points. That’s why the U.S. and many other nations agreed to cap warming at the 1.5-degree target at the 2015 Paris climate accord (but the US hasn’t been doing this). NCAR climate scientist Linda Mearns said it’s still critical to cut emissions as quickly as possible. She expects many people will suffer under 2 degrees of warming, but humanity could still survive. “I think people are not thinking that they’re choosing worlds of hurt, but that’s essentially what’s happening,” Mearns said. The report also focuses on cutting highly polluting methane.
The analysis includes a new interactive atlas to document regional impacts under different warming scenarios. Each of the potential outcomes shows the Western U.S. will be a drought and temperature hotspot where conditions exceed global averages.
Avoiding full-out catastrophe requires immediate and sweeping action. This is “code red for humanity,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said. The original draft discussed fossil fuels, according to Deutsche Welle reporter Ajit Niranjan’s sources, but this was later cut. Kate Aronoff argued that we need to change our definition of climate denial: People who claim to care about climate change but won’t support policies to rein in the fossil fuel industry and decarbonize are, at this point, functionally indistinguishable from climate deniers. That includes President Biden:
The Biden administration is now on track to approve more oil and gas drilling on public lands—activity that accounts for a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions—than any administration since George W. Bush. Climate envoy John Kerry has balked at the idea of committing the U.S. to a coal phaseout. Politicians who call themselves climate hawks are still going out of their way to make clear that there’s a vibrant future ahead for the companies that funded climate denial, whose business model remains built around burning up and extracting as many fossil fuels as possible. Administration officials, meanwhile, have talked repeatedly about the need to cap warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius.
This is climate denial. These politicians don’t dispute that the climate is changing, but they are absolutely in denial about what curbing it would entail.
The steps needed to avoid catastrophe are not a mystery. They are not unknown. While transitioning rapidly off fossil fuels would involve some serious changes, it’s not actually impossible. We have both the technology (renewable energy, energy efficiency, etc.) and the planning solutions (rearranging living patterns and supply chains for minimal emissions and transport, investing in low-emissions sectors) needed to do it.
Molly Taft at Earther highlighted a more specific point. This report, more than prior IPCC reports, emphasizes the role of methane—a shorter-lived but more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide—in global warming. “Cutting methane emissions is the single fastest, most effective way there is to slow the rate of warming right now,” says Environmental Defense Fund climate scientist Ilissa Ocko in the article.
That’s perversely comforting, Molly pointed out, because “we actually have a lot of the technology and tools we need to get methane emissions down now.” Agriculture—specifically, the meat industry—is the single biggest contributor to global methane emissions, closely followed by fossil fuels. (Fracking, in particular, has been identified as a primary suspect in the global methane spike from 2006 onward.) Reducing meat consumption, plugging abandoned oil wells, and banning flaring and fracking could make a huge difference, fast. Bennet and Hickenlooper joined Republicans in supporting an amendment prohibiting the Environmental Protection Agency from banning fracking.
Brian Kahn: Make no mistake that there are powerful forces aligned against that change. There are those who aim to preserve existing hierarchies and an economy based on the extraction of oil. Of wealth. Of dignity. And they will fight like hell, too. Those forces were around during past IPCC reports. The difference now, though, is that they are weaker than ever. “When that first domino falls—and I’m pretty brashly confident that we’re powerful enough to push the fucking thing over ASAP—it’s going to be a moment in history like nothing else. It’s going to happen in slow motion but when we’re old, we’ll remember it as a millisecond,” Ketan Joshi, an energy analyst, said in a tweet about ending the coal industry and fossil fuel use as a whole. That proclamation has been rattling around my brain for weeks.
CO impacts: The state’s three biggest wildfires are less than a year old. Rain falling on those burn scars has triggered deadly flash flooding and erosion that has shut down highways and poisoned water supplies. Heatwaves have threatened to cook people inside their homes. Air quality warnings have also become a summer fixture thanks to a combination of local pollution and smoke, mostly from out-of-state wildfires. Global heating has already increased the frequency of drought and wildfire conditions in western and central North America. Colorado relies on snowpack for recreation and water supplies, but the report predicts it will continue to decline across the West. One study cited by the IPCC scientists found the region experienced a 10 to 20 percent loss in snowpack between 1980 and 2000. A further loss of up to 60 percent is projected within the next 30 years. Colorado’s ski industry says climate change is an “existential threat.” Hotter temperatures are also changing seasonal runoff patterns. More spring snowmelt means less water in the summer and fall, which can complicate water supplies and increase fire danger later into the year. https://www.cpr.org/2021/08/09/un-climate-report-what-it-means-for-colorado/