The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released last August 9, gives humanity a stark warning: act now on climate, or face terrible consequences. The report paints a grim picture for humanity, even if we meet the most ambitious carbon emissions reduction targets — and, of course, an even grimer picture if we don’t.
Background on the report
The IPCC is an international body mandated by the United Nations to provide assessments of our current climate crisis, make projections regarding possible future impacts of climate change, and suggest policy measures to governments so that our global climate goals are met. It has played an increasingly important role in shedding light on where our planet — and, of course, humanity — is headed, in the context of global warming and climate change.
Every seven or so years, the IPCC comes out with an Assessment Report, which is essentially a summary of the best available climate science. The time it takes to produce an Assessment Report is testament to the arduous process undertaken by the IPCC of incorporating new developments and building scientific consensus. Last August 9, 2021 marked the release of the first part of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), which is authored by the IPCC Working Group 1 and tackles the physical science of climate change — that is, temperature increase, climate and weather patterns, among other things. The reports from Working Group 2 and 3, which tackle climate impacts and policy measures respectively, are slated for release next year.
So where does humanity stand, according to the latest IPCC report?
“It is unequivocal”: humans have caused the climate crisis
The report makes it clear to anyone who has any doubts about the cause of climate change: human activities are responsible. Continuous emission of greenhouse gases since the start of the Industrial Revolution has resulted in our current situation of drastic global warming. Glacier retreat, ocean warming, sea level rise have all been attributed, with high confidence, to human-driven global warming.
Of course, it’s important to understand which humans are responsible. Spoiler: it’s not all humans — just a few of us.
It’s now almost certain that we have broken many natural records in terms of emissions and warming, and some of these records go way back. Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in 2019 were likely higher than at any other point of the Earth’s history for the past two million years. Temperatures are also increasing at rates faster than at any other point in the last two thousand years.
How about the global glacier retreat rate? Highest in at least two thousand years. Ocean warming rate? Highest in at least 11,000 years. Ocean acidity? Possibly the most acidic in the last two million years.
Every region of the globe is affected
This report marks the first time the IPCC has released a more detailed analysis of climate change at a regional level. This allows for a more comprehensive look at how global warming impacts different places in different ways.
As seen in the report, across the globe there is a general increase in hot temperature extremes that can be attributed to human activities with high confidence. Changes in heavy precipitation and in agricultural and ecological drought patterns are also observable in the report for many regions, though more research is needed to link these impacts to human activity.
For Southeast Asia in particular, the report was able to establish that the increase in hot temperature extremes in the region are very likely due to human influence on the climate. There is also a general agreement that precipitation in the Southeast Asian region has increased since the 1950s.
Many of the changes now are irreversible for centuries
For some impacts of global warming, there is no turning back. Events such as melting of the polar ice caps, rising sea levels, thawing permafrost, ocean warming and deoxygenation are likely to continue for centuries, no matter what we do. However, the rate at which these events take place may still vary depending on our future carbon emission rates.
The impacts of these events on people and planet pose a grave threat to places like the Philippines, but the solutions to these are within reach, as long as there is political will to pursue the proper adaptation measures.
Limiting to 1.5°C is still possible — but only just
The goal set by the Paris Agreement of limiting global temperature increase to 1.5°C provides a safer guardrail to the impacts of the climate crisis, which will be undoubtedly worse at higher temperatures. Very low to low emissions pathways — which, in practice, means rapid emissions reductions within the next decade or so — gives humanity a good chance at limiting long-term temperature increase to 1.5°C.
What do we mean by this “good chance” for 1.5°C? With the complexity of the climate system, it’s difficult to say for certain that we will achieve any sort of goal, only that certain actions like reducing emissions as quickly as possible will give us a better chance at doing so. The carbon budget (that is, the maximum amount of CO2 that can still be emitted to achieve the desired outcome) for a 50% chance at limiting increase to 1.5°C is approximately 500 gigatons of carbon dioxide, though changes in non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions can increase or decrease the carbon budget by 220 gigatons or more.
Regardless, pushing for a coin-toss 1.5°C scenario — hardly an ideal situation — leaves us with only a few years (at current emissions levels) to cut our emissions to net zero. Fighting for better chances at 1.5°C means even less time left for us to act.
The time to act is now
The latest IPCC report is hardly surprising. If anything, it merely confirmed what climate activists have been talking about for the past few years: our climate is broken, and it can get even worse.
But we must not lose hope. Our fight is a fight for our survival, for our present and our future. We must keep up the pressure on our national and world leaders, and fight for every fraction of a degree to ensure that the worst scenarios of climate catastrophe are avoided.
This article was prepared by YACAP’s Education Committee.