The planet is on track to see a climate it hasn’t seen in thousands of years—if not hundreds of thousands. Climate impacts are no longer matters of the future; they’re happening now. The realities of today and the scenarios of tomorrow are enough to send chills down your spine.
This is the dose of reality offered in the latest assessment report out Monday from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading governmental climate organization within the U.N. that represents some 195 countries and their scientific communities. “Every region across the globe” is feeling those effects now, per the report.
The report itself outlines where we already are in terms of warming: 1.07 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That leaves us with barely a half degree before we hit 1.5 degrees Celsius. Beyond that point, the global climate projections become bleaker. The world is currently on track to see up to 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100. World leaders, elected officials, and representatives of the people cannot be allowed to throw us over that edge.
The findings don’t necessarily come as a surprise. Scientists have been sounding the alarm for years that our emissions are already influencing weather patterns. We only need to look to the last year to see how the climate crisis is unfolding: wildfires out West, heat waves up north, and hurricanes down the South. Elsewhere, fires, floods, and droughts have ravaged communities across continents.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re calling on policymakers to follow the science. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. The latest IPCC report is sobering, but it also reminds us we have options. The level of catastrophe to come all depends on public and private leaders and their ability to not only cut emissions—but to keep carbon in the ground. As we shift toward clean energy, we must also protect our natural carbon sinks to prevent any more greenhouse gases from leaking into the atmosphere.
Indigenous leader Sara Omi doesn’t need a report to understand the urgency of the planet’s heating. She sees this reality with her own eyes in the Darién forests of Panama her people, the Emberá, call home. The land no longer bears gifts the way it once did. And industry is tearing down forests, endangering Omi’s homelands, as well as the planet’s well-being. Panamanian forests sequester nearly 400 tons of carbon per acre, yet the country lost over 1 million acres in the last decade.
“It’s not just about Indigenous communities,” said Omi, the president of the Coordinator of Women Territorial Leaders of Mesoamerica. “It’s about all of humanity.”
With the IPCC releasing its sixth assessment, Omi hopes the international community keeps Indigenous people and their contributions in mind. The report makes clear that we’re going to need all hands on deck to prevent a chain of catastrophes from erupting. Research has shown that Indigenous people are some of the best land stewards. More than one-fifth of the carbon stored in tropical forests falls under their jurisdiction, and this land sees, on average, less deforestation than non-Indigenous territories. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the report was released on International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
The IPCC has yet to dive into the socioeconomic fallout of all this warming.This report is focused on the physical science: atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, temperature changes, Arctic sea ice loss, and how much we’re at fault (spoiler alert: almost entirely). Next year, the panel will release a follow-up report on human and ecosystem vulnerabilities and then bring everything together in a final report focused on mitigation.
The IPCC’s last assessment came out in 2013 and 2014, so the science is a lot more reliable this time around. The report doesn’t involve new science—it’s more of a giant synthesis on the existing literature. However, today’s climate models and computers aren’t what they were in 2013. Computers are more powerful, and models feature improved simulations of the Earth’s natural processes. Plus, we now have attribution science, which investigates how likely a specific weather event would be were it not for climate change.
“The reality is that this is no longer about future projections. This is about here and now.”
Scientists are nearly certain that humans are behind modern-day heat waves (including those in the ocean), extreme rainfall events, and droughts. The IPCC found a 66 to 100% likelihood that anthropogenic behavior is to blame depending on what section you’re looking at. That’s not a lot of room to be wrong.
“The reality is that this is no longer about future projections,” said Rachel Cleetus, policy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Climate and Energy Program who wasn’t involved in the report. “This is about here and now.”
Looking to the future, however, even the best-case scenario won’t be great. By the middle of the century, temperatures would peak at 1.6 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. And this scenario involves reducing emissions from 2020 onward, which is not yet happening. To limit heating to 1.4 degrees Celsius by 2100, policymakers must act immediately, especially to cut methane emissions because those won’t last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. That won’t happen if governments keep investing in gas pipelines, export terminals, power plants, and other infrastructure, which often leak methane.
The difference between 1.4 degrees and 1.6 degrees may not sound like much, but “every fraction of a degree matters at this point,” Cleetus said. Just look at our present warming of 1.07 degrees Celsius, which has already done the following, according to the report:
– Increased the frequency of extreme heat events we used to see once every 10 years to 2.8 times every 10 years
– Increased the frequency of extreme rainfall events we used to see once every 10 years to 1.3 times every 10 years
– Increased the frequency of droughts in arid regions we used to see once every 10 years to 1.7 times every 10 years
The numbers grow exponentially as we move into 1.5 degrees Celsius projections and beyond. This report shows just how widespread and vast impacts will be across the planet, but Cleetus emphasized we won’t all feel these impacts the same. In the Arctic, for instance, warming will continue to be pronounced, disproportionately harming Alaska Native communities who have always lived in tandem with the snow and ice. By 2050, in even best-case scenarios, Arctic seas may be ice-free come summertime.
“The truly unjust part of climate change is that, in most cases, the communities that are least responsible for the emissions in the atmosphere are actually taking a disproportionate brunt of the impacts,” Cleetus said. “It is the obligation of richer countries who are responsible for a predominant contribution to the emissions to take the lead in providing the resources to help countries make this low-carbon transition and be protected from these impacts of climate change.”
Many changes are irreversible at this point, such as ocean acidification and sea level rise. We’ll have to wait millennia for that to revert to healthy levels. And yet we still have time to prevent worse. For Omi, Indigenous people like herself need to be at the forefront of those global efforts. She knows what the alternative may be if not: an expiration date for her people in Panama.
The latest IPCC report is an opportunity to remind politicians why they need Indigenous people, especially women. “Indigenous women and local communities are protectors, guardians of our forests, of life,” Omi said. “We women want to support a local, national, and international agenda that’ll also recognize our relationship with Mother Earth.”