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The U.N. Issues a Final Warning on the Climate—and a Plan
- Mar 22, 2023 11:56 am GMT
The I.P.C.C. report contains no new data; nevertheless, it manages to alarm in new ways.
The New Yorket by Elizabeth Kolbert
The “window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future” is “rapidly closing.” So warns the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its latest report, released on Monday. The findings in the document, officially known as the AR6 Synthesis Report, might be summed up as “Wake up! This is your last chance, humanity.”
According to the I.P.C.C., average global temperatures have already increased 1.1 degrees Celsius—two degrees Fahrenheit—from the late nineteenth century, and this is causing “widespread adverse impacts” for people and for other living things. “Impacts on some ecosystems are approaching irreversibility,” the report states. For every additional increment of warming, the chances of catastrophe will only increase, and the options for adaptation will contract. Climate-related and climate-unrelated disasters will begin to interact, resulting in risks that cascade “across sectors and regions.” And those who are likely to suffer the most are those who have done the least to cause the problem.
“Humanity is on thin ice, and that ice is melting fast,” the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, said in a video message released for the occasion.
As the name of the synthesis report suggests, the latest from the I.P.C.C. contains no new data; it simply pulls together information that has already been published. Nevertheless, the synthesis manages to alarm in new ways. So much damage is already occurring with 1.1 degrees of warming, it observes, that probably the harms of further climate change are even greater than had been predicted. Meanwhile, the odds of avoiding a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees C—considered by many scientists to be a key threshold—are approaching zero. Even under a best-case scenario, with global greenhouse-gas emissions declining both quickly and dramatically, “warming is more likely than not to reach 1.5° C,” the report states.
The I.P.C.C. operates under extraordinary political constraints. Although its work is largely scientific, its reports are subject to approval by a global cast of diplomats. To hash out the final language for the synthesis report, delegates from all around the world gathered last week in Interlaken, Switzerland. Tellingly, the deadline for the final document kept being pushed back. According to news reports, one of the major sticking points was how to decide which nations will be eligible for aid from a new “loss and damage” fund agreed on last year, during the cop27 conference, in Egypt. (The fund is supposed to funnel money from wealthy nations that have emitted the most to poorer countries that are bearing the brunt of climate change.)
When the agreed-upon report was released, U.N. officials tried to characterize it as terrifying but also as inspirational. Guterres described it as a “how-to guide to defuse the climate time bomb.” The chair of the I.P.C.C., Hoesung Lee, an economist from South Korea, told reporters that “this report offers hope.”
The synthesis report does, indeed, show how humanity could still avoid the worst effects of climate change. Were global carbon-dioxide emissions to be cut in half by 2030 and effectively eliminated by 2050, there would, according to the I.P.C.C., still be a chance of limiting warming to 1.5° C.
“The systemic change required to achieve rapid and deep emissions reductions and transformative adaptation to climate change is unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed,” the report notes. “Feasible, effective, and low-cost options for mitigation and adaptation are already available.”
But to imagine at this point that the latest warning from the I.P.C.C. will spur action, when so many previous ones have failed to, requires not just hope but, it would seem, something close to delusion. (The latest report is known as the AR6 Synthesis because it is part of the I.P.C.C.’s sixth assessment; this assessment and the five earlier ones each produced hundreds of pages of documentation.)
Just last week, the Biden Administration approved an enormous new oil-drilling venture, the Willow project, in Alaska. ConocoPhillips, the company in charge, plans to pump oil out of the project for thirty years, which is to say well beyond mid-century. According to a recent report by the Finland-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air and the California-based Global Energy Monitor, last year China approved a hundred and six gigawatts’ worth of new coal-fired power plants, “the equivalent of two large coal power plants per week.”
Can actions like this be squared with halving emissions by 2030 and eliminating them by 2050? The simple answer is no. The I.P.C.C. is already gearing up for a seventh assessment cycle, set to begin this summer. Even before this next cycle begins, a summary of the results can be composed with, in I.P.C.C.-speak, “high confidence.” The world will continue to warm, the damage will increase, and the global response will be inadequate.
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