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Climate Change Does Not Wait For Us to Pay Attention (and IPCC Needs to do a Better Job at Raising Our Concern)


If they exist, the gods are maliciously cruel to us lowly humans.  Facing a slow but existential series of environmental changes due to our own unthinking misuse of the planet, we are being distracted by lesser but more immediate crises.  Efforts to curtail climate change are continuing, but they are not ramping up at anywhere the pace they need to if we are to avoid some real unpleasantness in future years.

First there was the global economic downturn which began in the US property market in 2007 and spread to become the worst global recession since the 1930s.  I remember this one because I was managing a project in Dubai and watched as a frothy real estate market collapsed to create a local crisis so enormous that Dubai had to go cap-in-hand to its oil-rich big brother Abu Dhabi for a $20 billion bail-out.  That’s why the tallest building in the world, in Dubai, is named the Burj Khalifa (after Sheikh Khalifa ibn Zayed Al Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi and President of the UAE).  It was always planned to be the Burj Dubai until 2009 when big brother bailed out little brother for a price.  My little project came to an ignominiously swift and early end, and the many artificial islands on Dubai’s drawing board remain, for the most part, glimmers in the eyes of leaders in Dubai.  That alone may be a good consequence of the collapse!

We were getting used to the collapse and the slow recovery, when the political system in the USA received its own, unexpected crisis – the election and subsequent, erratic reign of Donald Trump.  Talk about sucking the oxygen out of the room.  The Donald spent four years ineffectively demolishing democracy and diverting everyone’s attention from other problems.  I thank those malicious gods for being generous enough to ensure his general ineffectiveness; think what might have happened if he had possessed a modicum of executive skills.

In the middle of the Trump swamp, along came the SARS-CoV-2 virus.  It’s not like public health experts had not been warning us the world was overdue for a pandemic disease.  Yet, there It was, and the world was woefully unprepared.  Covid-19, in its succession of variant forms, swept the world and we all watched as governments and communities wrestled, more-or-less successfully, to bring it to heel.  The last two years have been a time unlike any other in my life, and there is no guarantee that the disease has now become relatively benign, sort of like a serious flu, something we can shrug off until we are old enough and infirm enough that we need to guard against it only if still wanting to live.  The varying approaches, and the varying success among nations and communities have been fascinating to watch, and doubtless informative for public health experts.  The rapidity with which effective vaccines were created, tested and approved for use, is one of the few good-news stories about this crisis.

And then there is Ukraine.  The economic downturn was just another glimpse of the folly of greed.  The Donald was just a sign of the fragility of America’s political system – why does the most amazing democracy on the planet have so much difficulty simply running an election and ensuring all entitled to vote can actually have their votes counted?  Covid was just a glimpse of the future we all knew would happen one day somewhere, just not now and here.  But Ukraine?  The Russian invasion of its neighbor is straight out of history, a history we all had begun to believe that the developed world, if not the entire world, had left some decades ago.  Is there not a way for the nations of the world to agree that granting permanent veto power to five nations that happened to be strong in 1947 was a mistake which should be corrected immediately?  Is the so-called intelligent ape cursed to be perpetually subject to the whims of the strong, who somehow get to take whatever they want because they are bigger than their neighbors?  How this episode will end is far from clear at this point, but it is proving most effective at keeping eyes and ears directed to it alone.  Sitting here in Canada, I can do relatively little to help, but that does not mean I can forget about the art school, the theatre and the maternity hospital in Mariupol, all sheltering innocent civilians, and all hit by Russian bombs.

So, What About Climate Change?

But let’s come up for some air.  What has been happening to the climate while all these diversions have been occupying our eyes?  The average concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere above Mauna Kea was 419.28 ppm in February 2022.  It was 384.12 ppm in February 2007 before the financial collapse started.  It didn’t dip during the depths of the pandemic when planes nearly ceased flying and the global economy nearly ground to a halt.  More disturbing even than this, until 2020, the annual emissions of CO2 continued to grow, year-by-year, because the global economy had such a head of steam that our tentative shift towards green energy simply meant that only some of the additional energy used each year added to our growing annual emissions of CO2.

Despite talking about reducing emissions for 30 years, despite making some modest progress on transitioning to green energy sources over that time, the world economy continued to expand the amount of CO2 it emits every year until covid brought industry and transport crashing to the ground in 2020.  From 31.49 billion metric tonnes in 2007, our emissions had grown to 36.7 billion tonnes in 2019.  In 2020, they fell back to 34.8.  But in 2021, emissions rebounded to 36.14, and 2022 is expected to exceed the emissions for 2019.

All the talk about building back better after covid?  We are busily building back, but we are using the same old dirty energy sources we used before.  I can’t help thinking that the self-interest of a few powerful fossil fuel companies, and the general lack of imagination among the political crowd, are responsible.  What is it going to take to actually get the global economy off carbon?

Global CO2 emissions per year since 1940 show a steady climb.  The IPCC was formed by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988 and has had no perceptual impact on the rate of growth in emissions since then!  Graph ©, based on data from the Global Carbon project.

Some Alarming Information

On February 28th, four days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its report from Working Group II, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, that will comprise one of three major parts in the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report, due to be completed by the end of this year.  Working Group I provided its report, Climate Change 2021: Physical Science Basis, in draft form in August 2021.  Like all reports from IPCC, the February one is almost impossible to read.  It is very long and packed with information, but it is written in exactly the style you might expect from a team of thousands (well, hundreds).  Why does IPCC persist in making its most important reports so utterly indigestible?  Should it not want to present as clear a picture of the current situation as possible?

Anyhow, enough of that.  Being a dedicated and determined soul, I have done my best.  The story follows the theme of all previous IPCC reports – whatever you learned from our last report, we now know, with considerable certainty, that the situation is even worse than we expected.

The reason for this trend, and it’s been consistent since that first IPCC report in 1990, is that the science of climate change continues to evolve, and as it does so we discover more impacts, positive feedbacks, and complex environmental interactions resulting from the warming atmosphere, each of which makes the overall consequences of the warming more extreme than we had thought. 

In addition, the production of IPCC reports is a process of seeking consensus among the many contributors. These include hundreds of science experts as well as representatives of the 195 governments.  As a consequence, those scientist contributors who are least willing to factor in processes or agents not yet rigorously delineated by the available science pull the consensus future towards the status quo, rather than towards a more extreme future, and the government reps, who must approve the text of the Summary for Policymakers (the front 30 pages or so of the ~1000 page total), sometimes work to water down conclusions they are not keen on – such as the need to shift away from use of fossil fuels.  By design, the IPCC generates reports that can be relied upon to not overstate the extent of the changes that warming will bring or the actions that are needed.  The result is that the reports routinely understate.  And each successive set of reports (each assessment), now supported by more extensive and better understood science, reveals that the conservatism of the prior assessment presented a picture that included less extreme consequences than are now clearly going to occur. 

David Parkins captures the sausage making, as an IPCC report is watered down by government representatives anxious not to have it include recommendations that might hurt their economies.  Image © David Parkins & Globe and Mail.

IPCC reports, as well as being difficult to read, are definitely not the ravings of a bunch of greenie scientists living on the outer fringe of acceptability; they are so mainstream they are yesterday’s news.

And yet, they contain some sobering information.  Working Group I’s report last year finally confirmed what virtually all of us already knew: it is now an incontrovertible fact that humanity is causing the climate to change.  The Working Group II report confirms that the risks from climate change are real, are already profound, and will get worse.  But it also proposes solutions and demonstrates that achieving the sustainable development goals for the world’s poor absolutely requires that we get climate change under control quickly.  It’s a great pity that the report is not better written and that its graphs and charts have become so complex they also fail to convey the messages.  As it is, in this account I have used some slides from a presentation to announce the report, rather than images from the report itself.  It’s unfortunate that it had to compete for attention with the war in Ukraine.

IPCC has at last reached the point where it is prepared to state that there is unequivocable evidence of the danger of climate change.  Image @ IPCC

What Does Working Group II Say?

The well-worn phrases about a rapidly closing window, a need for quick action, are bolstered by lots of concrete examples of how climate change interacts with other types of change to make for worse outcomes.  For example, the report highlights how climate change is contributing to the global loss of biodiversity, while suggesting that ecological systems lose their resilience as they lose biodiversity.  Even if ecological systems can accommodate to substantial loss of biodiversity without losing resilience – a very doubtful claim unlikely to be true – the losses in species, and in sheer abundance of organisms of most species on the planet should be deeply concerning.  As this image shows, even at the aspirational 1.5oC limit of warming, there are going to be profound losses of biodiversity, and if we warm further the consequences are extreme.  Humanity does not yet know enough about how ecological systems function to be confident that we will be able to manage a deeply simplified planet.

Biodiversity loss… the worlds roll out harmlessly enough, but as these maps show, the loss of biodiversity is likely to be very substantial, even for the 1.5oC warming we are supposedly all struggling to attain.  Image © IPCC.

Even at 1.5oC warming the expectation for biodiversity is stark: 25-50% loss of biodiversity over large portions of the land area.  At 3.0oC (where we are currently headed) the prediction is stark, with many parts of the planet experiencing 70% biodiversity loss or more.  That will not be the planet we are adapted to living on.  Overall, somewhere between 3 and 14% of terrestrial species will face extinction at 1.5oC, while there could be a loss of 29% of species at 3.0oC. Try to imagine a world with a third of its species missing.

People tend to forget the range of goods and services we get from the environment.  Climate change threatens most of them.  Image © IPCC

The complex interactions among components of the natural world, warming, and other aspects of climate ramify as compound risks for the human endeavor.  Image © IPCC

Changes in climate also have impacts on the extent to which the natural world will be able to support us with the goods and services we mostly take for granted.  The report provides considerable detail on how warming and climate change interact with other processes to create risks, as well as a reminder of the extent and range of goods and services we get from nature.  And hidden in the text are frequent stark warnings about consequences for human life.

Four particular risks caused by climate change.  These will have direct impacts on millions of people across the planet even at 1.5oC of warming.  Image © IPCC.

In the next few years, simple heat stress will lead to severe mortality risk in many parts of the world during summer heat waves (because the temperatures will be too high for human survival, even with ample water, if people lack access to cool spaces).  Water scarcity due to the drying up of snow-melt fed rivers will directly impact agriculture in such places as South Asia, the American west and Brazil.  For these and other reasons, it is undeniable that climate change will have enormous direct impacts on humanity.  Global food security will be undermined as a growing human population faces failing agricultural production.  Just how close this shortage of staple foods is will be seen shortly when the global consequences in reduced food supply due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine become apparent.  The world does not have bountiful reserves of staple foods.  And people who live on small islands and low-lying coastal areas are going to be displaced by rising sea levels.  Where will they go?  (It’s worth remembering that the amount of warming we have already caused has started melting processes in Greenland and Antarctica that will continue for hundreds of years, even if we were magically to cease all additional warming tomorrow – the time lags inherent in the process of melting of ice can be very long, and those ice shelves that keep breaking up on the Antarctic coastline are a very visible sign of what we have managed to do.)  Whoops.

The report tries its best to point out that there are limits to adaptation and mitigation.  We cannot stop the melting in Greenland and Antarctica that our warming until now has already triggered, even if we want to.  We’d need to massively cool the planet to do so.  Nor can we halt sea level rise (for the same reason).  With glaciers melting, many of the world’s major rivers are losing their sources of water and we probably cannot halt that either.  They will show reduced flows and may even dry up in late summer dry spells.  Much global agriculture depends on such rivers, and with crop failure comes lack of food and starvation.  Need I go on?

I think the message that there are limits to adaptation and mitigation is perhaps one that IPCC has been too quiet about until now.  We modern, thoroughly western, consumerists believe intrinsically that where there is a will there is a way.  Markets always find optimal solutions.  Humans are creative and can invent solutions.  Even the rapidity with which effective covid vaccines were brought to market is offered by many as proof that our enormous inventiveness will get us out of any corners we find ourselves trapped in.  We need the humility to recognize that some of the problems we are creating may be too large or too complex.  They are simply beyond our capacity to fix them.  I’d love to believe cold fusion was a reliable future source of unlimited energy, but it looks like the early lab results really were too good to be true.  Carbon capture and storage is on firmer scientific ground, but still proving difficult to bring to market at scale.  Having faith in the power of the markets and technological innovation to solve us from our stupidity sounds very inspiring, but there are more than a few snake oil salesmen pushing the idea that we can invent our way out of climate change disaster.  Of course new technologies will emerge.  And they may prove significantly helpful.  But let’s focus on cutting emissions as quickly as we can, while continuing the search for new technologies.

The final image I am using is one that does appear, in a slightly less polished format, in the report itself.  I don’t find it very satisfying as a summary statement for the report (which is how it is used), but it does include important messages. 

Our future world depends very much on the actions we have already taken and those we take in the next year or two.  This diagram captures the uncertain trajectories, sometimes subject to abrupt changes in condition, and the very different places they end up in 2100.  It also shows how the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 are largely attainable if we follow certain paths, but are unattainable if we follow others (climate adaptation and mitigation directly affect conditions for human life).  Image © IPCC.

On the positive side, this image shows that the future is far from certain, and that what we do will play a large role in determining the future in which we end up.  It also shows, with faint dotted green lines pathways to a much better future that are no longer available to us because we have dallied so long, trying to enjoy the good life while letting our children pick up the pieces down the road.  That may not be a positive message, but it is one we need to hear.  The image also shows clearly that we can get to moderately good futures by making tough decisions now and sticking with them but will end up in a far worse future if we continue our lackadaisical behavior, quick to make promises (such as of zero carbon by 2050), but slow to back up those promises with real action to reduce emissions.

Hot Off the Press

As I was finalizing this post, on April 4th, IPCC announced the release of the Working Group III report, Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of climate change. The press release caught the attention of the media, perhaps saturated with the horror in Ukraine, but mainly because it was hard-hitting.  (I think IPCC may be trying to remedy the ‘sink without much trace’ fate of the Working Group II report.)

The Huffington Post headlined its lead article on the release of the report: ‘Now Or Never’: New U.N. Report Sees Narrow Path For Averting Climate Catastrophe.  It included quotes such as “It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C.  Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible,” (Jim Skea, co-lead author of the report).  Or “Increased action must begin this year, not next year; this month, not next month; and indeed today, not tomorrow.  Otherwise we will … continue to sleepwalk into a climate catastrophe,” (Inger Andersen, director of UNEP).  The New York Times quoted Antonio Gutierrez, UN Secretary-General, “This is a climate emergency … [yet wealthy economies and corporations] are not just turning a blind eye; they are adding fuel to the flames. They are choking our planet, based on their vested interests and historic investments in fossil fuels, when cheaper, renewable solutions provide green jobs, energy security, and greater price stability.” The report claims that the world needs to invest three to six times what it’s currently spending on mitigating climate change if it wants to limit global warming to 1.5 or 2oC.  Money is particularly short in poorer countries, which need trillions of dollars of investment each year this decade.

Ivan Semeniuk, reporting in the Globe and Mail, focused not only on the need to do more and more quickly to bring climate change under control.  He quoted Patricia Perkins of York University, Toronto, one of the authors of the report, who drew attention also to a shift in values — there is a whole lot of potential for emissions reductions that is there lurking, ready to be tapped, if people are given opportunities to manage their consumption in ways that are less wasteful – including shifts away from single-use consumer goods and appliances that are designed to be thrown away when they break.  Perkins said, “There has to be this value cascade that works through the system, because it’s just too energy intensive to make a washing machine and then junk it after a few years because the start button doesn’t work.”  Clearly, I need to wade into this report and see if it does a better job of detailing the shifts in effort, goals and values highlighted here.  I hope so.