What’s good to know about the IPCC and its next climate report

 “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.

1.5 and responsibilities

In April 2021  President Joe Biden announced that the United States will cut emissions by 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 as part of its commitment to the 2016 Paris Agreement on climate change. Biden’s announcement came during the administration’s virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, which aimed to push climate action around the world. A key goal of the summit was “to keep a limit to warming of 1.5 degree Celsius within reach.” A 2018 special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that global greenhouse gas emissions need to drop by 50 percent by 2030 to keep warming below 1.5  degrees Celsius and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.  This pledge, yet to be followed up with policy, is not enough to get there.

The idea that global emissions need to fall by 50 percent by 2030 “is a global average target,” said Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist from Eswatini, the Southern African country formerly known as Swaziland. Hickel serves on the Statistical Advisory Panel for the UN Human Development Report 2020, the advisory board of the Green New Deal for Europe, and on Harvard’s Lancet Commission on Reparations and Redistributive Justice.  To meet that target, Hickel told the Daily Poster that the United States and other high-income nations “have a responsibility under the terms of the Paris Agreement to cut emissions much faster than [Biden’s pledge], given their overwhelming contributions to historical emissions.

The United States is the biggest carbon dioxide emitter in history. The US has emitted 25 percent of the world’s emissions since 1751. And even though US emissions have fallen in recent years, fossil fuels still account for 80 percent of energy production in the US.

The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the first major international climate change treaty, acknowledged that countries should address the crisis “in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities and their social and economic conditions.” The Paris Agreement is a treaty within UNFCCC.  A 2020 paper in The Lancet Planetary Health by Hickel explored the concept of “carbon budget,” the idea that the atmosphere is part of the global commons and all countries should only emit their fair share of carbon dioxide. According to the paper, the United States has already overshot its share of the carbon budget by 40 percent. Overall, the Global North has overshot its carbon budget by 92 percent, with the European Union being responsible for 29 percent of that total. Biden’s new emissions pledge means that “the U.S. will continue to colonize the atmospheric commons, gobbling up the fair shares of poorer nations, causing enormous destruction in the process,” said Hickel. the United States should instead “commit to reach zero emissions by 2030, and to pay reparations for climate damage to countries in the Global South.” Such effort would include helping to facilitate emission reduction efforts in poorer nations that have yet to consume their fair share of the global carbon budget.

The US Climate Fair Share Project, an effort backed by over a hundred seventy-five climate organizations, also believes the United States should do more to combat climate breakdown in developing countries. The project has concluded that in order to cover its fair share of climate impacts, the United States would have to cut its emissions by 195 percent, meaning the US would have to cut its own emissions and compensate by cutting other emissions/funding the transition abroad. To achieve this goal, the US Climate Fair Share project says the United States would need to cut emissions by 70 percent, then meet the remaining 125 percent reduction by financing international climate efforts and providing technological support to developing countries.

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/

Overview: As RMI recently reported, Colorado is not at all on track to reach its 2030 or 2050 climate goals (the report is silent on the looming 2025 goal but we’ll have that soon!). (Denver Post, May 2021)https://bit.ly/2021-WhatNow – Where we are in 2021.  Earlier: http://bit.ly/WeCanMeetCOgoals, https://bit.ly/COCoalitionLetter. http://bit.ly/ThingsWeCanDo to reach CO climate goals. 

We could get to CO methane and CO2 reductions cost-effectively https://bit.ly/GridLabSept2020 by closing coal by 2025 or at least ceasing coal use in all but the most extreme weather, getting to over 70% renewable electricity by 2025 and 98% renewable electricity by 2030.  Unfortunately, CO’s largest single GHG emitter and lobbyist has their own exemption on p. 8 of HB19-1261, trying to prevent this and continue using fossil fuels longer.  https://bit.ly/AnA-gradeUtility (not a “C” as January report from the Sierra Club showed). https://bit.ly/PrivatizeRiskNotJustProfits, https://bit.ly/TimesUpForCoal, https://bit.ly/HumanCostCoalPlantsPueblo. The average annual emissions from a single coal-fired power plant result in 900 human deaths each year. This is according to a new study published in Nature Communications on the “social cost of carbon” which calculates that cost of each tonne of CO2 emissions by “assigning an expected death toll from the emissions that cause the climate crisis”, the newspaper adds. It notes that, according to the study, one person will die prematurely for every 4,434 metric tonnes of CO2 released into the atmosphere beyond the 2020 rate of emissions

Air pollution harms everyone. Table of contents here shares a quick overview of the research: http://bit.ly/AQheadlines https://bit.ly/AirPollutionDamagesEveryCell and People of Color Hardest Hit by Air Pollution. https://bit.ly/1in5deathsFromFossilFuelEmissions.  Studies show people of color are more concerned about climate change, less represented in climate policy decisions, and contribute less and suffer more from pollution; yet people of color typically have less access to jobs and benefits from clean energy than white people. http://bit.ly/govtresponsibility – includes takeaways from a former CDC Director. Local testimony at min. 7: https://vimeo.com/showcase/7077649  Password: THE-AIR https://bit.ly/Denver4thWorstAirPollution

Transportation: Freeway expansion is the wrong way to spend Colorado’s COVID-19 relief dollars – Dr. David Mintzer. There are better options. See http://bit.ly/BuildBackStronger-CO  – in response to Polis Admin plans and https://bit.ly/TransportationBestOpportunities for Emissions Reductions

Drought: https://bit.ly/COdustbowlification – the risks of the current path in CO are bad and getting worse, and we’ve known for a while. https://e360.yale.edu/features/as-the-climate-warms-could-the-u.s.-face-another-dust-bowl. The Boston Globe reports that “ninety-degree days are occurring earlier and now number twice the historical average”. Some western slope farms are getting just 5-10% of the water they are used to. “Over Half of the People Who Used to Grow Crops Here Can’t ..

Sara Schonhardt, E&E News, 7/22/2021, https://www.eenews.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/5-things-to-know-about-the-ipcc-and-its-next-climate-report.pdf

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change grabbed the world’s attention in 2018 when it released a sobering report that warned — in no uncertain terms — world leaders needed to take drastic and immediate steps to blunt the most catastrophic impacts of global warming.

Policymakers responded with a range of emotion, from denial to outrage. But the message was clear. “It’s like a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen,” Erik Solheim, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, told The Washington Post at the time.

Next month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — or IPCC for short — plans to release another report. And again, scientists, lawmakers and activists are bracing themselves for the news.

The report will come three months before world leaders gather in Glasgow, Scotland, to try and figure out a plan to avert the worst effects of climate change. And it’s all but certain the IPCC’s findings will inform that debate.
So, what is the IPCC and what does it do?

One thing it isn’t is a fly-by-night operation. The U.N. group has been around for more than three decades assessing the science behind climate change, projecting what’s to come and offering ways to respond. All with the eyes of the world upon it.

“No other science has been scrutinized as heavily as climate science has in the past 30 years, and that’s thanks to these
intergovernmental reports,” said Corinne Le Quéré, research professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia.

One consistent message among them all: an ever-stronger statement about the human influence on global temperature rise as a consequence of growing greenhouse gases, said Emily Shuckburgh, director of the Cambridge Carbon Neutral Futures Initiative.

On Aug. 9, the IPCC will release the first of four reports under its latest assessment cycle. Here are five things to know about the IPCC, its upcoming report and the politics that surround the effort.

What it is
The IPCC consists of government representatives who commission regular environmental reports from academics from
around the world. Those experts have produced their assessments on a seven-year cycle since 1988, with special reports in
the interim years. The IPCC is currently in its sixth assessment cycle.
The assessments are divided between three working groups, each with a different focus and published on different intervals.
Working Group I is a synthesis of the existing physical science. It answers questions about how much global warming is
occurring and where; how warming impacts oceans, sea-level rise and weather pattern changes; and it lays out projections of
what we might see in the future. This is the report that will be published in August.
Working Group II, slated for February, focuses on how vulnerable humans and nature are to global warming, the costs of
climate impacts or adaptation options. Working Group III, to come in March, will look at options for keeping to global
temperature targets and scenarios on renewable energy or carbon capture and storage.

How it works
At the end of the cycle there is a final synthesis report. This cycle also will include a task force report on national greenhouse gas inventories. On Aug. 9, the IPCC will release its summary for policymakers following a series of meetings where it will be discussed, revised and then signed off on. There are more than 230 authors from 65 countries. Men have historically comprised the majority of these contributors, though that pattern has started to change. Women now make up about 30% of the group. A gender panel and task force is working to bring more women into the process. The latest assessment will include new advances in science and a better understanding of the human impact on global warming. It will also have an interactive atlas — a novel addition — and five emissions scenarios that will explore the impact of rising emissions.

What to look for
A certainty statement: Each assessment has included a level of confidence that human activities are responsible for projected warming. The last one in 2013 put that confidence at extremely likely. Shifting baselines: This assessment will be fed by a new generation of computer models. A report last year, for example, suggested that historical temperature rise has been slightly bigger than previously thought, said Richard Black, a senior associate at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit. “What will that turn into about the carbon budget left?” he asked.
Other gases: Given advances in the science around the different greenhouse gases, Working Group I could separate the way they treat carbon dioxide and other long-lived greenhouse gases from methane and other short-lived ones.
Timing: What impact might the report have on upcoming meetings, such as the U.N. General Assembly, the Group of 20 and the climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland? Is the window for achieving the 1.5 degree Celsius temperature limit of the Paris Agreement closing? How quickly? How feasible is it to meet the temperature targets?
Wording: The power of the IPCC is that it’s comprehensive, said Le Quéré. It’s the only report that looks at measurements from the land to the ocean to the stratosphere. It looks at modeling and human experience. That makes the strength of the language and the coherence between the observations all the more important. She said she expects all the new information to come together in a powerful way.

What makes this assessment different
The last major report from Working Group I was published in 2013. What has happened since then is seven years of a warming climate. In that time, nations also signed onto the Paris Agreement, which includes very clear objectives around warming limits of 1.5 C. It also brings out an important set of challenges about assessing the climate science. Global warming has unfolded at approximately the rate that was projected in the 1990s, Le Quéré said. “But what we see now is that the warming itself, the extreme events, we can see with our own eyes.” There is also a lot more granular information about the regional distribution of these events and the role of attribution in climate change. In many instances, attribution science has been able to demonstrate scientifically that climate change has
increased the probability of extreme weather events, and a lot of that knowledge owes to new observations and modeling. Working Group I provides a variety of climate projections given an emissions scenario. In the past, it has focused on the most likely climate projections. But his time around, said Le Quéré, governments have asked the IPCC to look at low probability events that could potentially be very damaging. That means a lot more explicit information about the risks of extreme climate events, and a lot more regional information as requested by individual governments, she added.

Points of contention

As Black points out, all the governments accept these reports, so they can’t say they didn’t know what the science was
saying. The question is: Will they translate that science into action? Another weedy topic is the carbon budget. While it brings together so much of the science, it also involves all the uncertainty that goes with projection, said Le Quéré.

There also could be issues around procedure because it’s the first time there’s been an attempt to adopt a summary for policymakers on Zoom, said Black. If countries are looking for an excuse to disrupt the whole thing, that’s a good one, he added.

It would be better if all the reports — including Working Group II on impacts and vulnerability and Working Group III on mitigation — were released ahead of climate change talks in November, Shuckburgh said. But what next month’s report does put forth, she added, will make the risk that climate change poses abundantly clear. It will then be up to leaders to respond.

David J. C. MacKay’s maxim “every big thing counts” in his wonderful treatise on energy, Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air.