The Recent IPCC Climate Change Report: What’s New, What’s It Mean, and What Are Industry Insiders Saying?
Thanks to early advocates, scientists, and leaders, awareness of the climate crisis is at an all-time high in the United States and abroad. This accomplishment represents no small feat, given the early resistant or simply apathetic response from large portions of the population. However, for those passively watching the headlines, the press seems to have a new climate report, forecast, or warning with regularity, making it hard to really keep up to date on the latest news, to recognize what represents notable new information, and importantly what should be done with that.
With the deluge of climate awareness and discussion now commonplace, the release of the 2021 report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) may seem like just another one to add to the pile representing more of the same warnings we’ve now been hearing from years. But if you’re paying close attention the thought leaders in energy, climate, and related fields, you’ll hear that something is different this time. The 2021 IPCC report has unleased some warnings more dire, more imminent, and more worthy of attention than many similar reports in recent years, and recognizing this difference is critical to look forward to what comes next.
So, if you tend to only read the headlines and not dive deep into these scientific, international reports, you’ll likely have some questions, and after a week of discussion you might be too afraid to even ask them. But the answers to these questions are critical to unpacking what to do next, so I’ll lay them out for you here:
Who is the IPCC and why are they putting out this report?
The IPCC is the official group within the United Nations that is tasked specifically to deal with the international crisis of climate change. Both the root problems and the ultimate consequences of climate change are global in nature: a single nation can be impacted by climate change regardless of their carbon emissions. Because of this reality, the only true way for climate change to be tackled is through widespread and accountable international agreements to coordinate responses, pool resources, share science and best practices, and more. The IPCC was created in 1988 to start providing the collective knowledge and strategies to the international community, and today the IPCC is represented by 195 different countries.
In coordinating IPCC science, education, and forecasting efforts, scientists from across the world volunteer their time to evaluate the best studies that have come in from world-renowned scientists and determine how to stitch that knowledge together to be useful towards charting the path the world is currently on with regard to climate change. Each year, the IPCC is scheduled to move forward with a next stage of its overall dissemination of this critical knowledge, though whole releases take many years. For example, in 2014 the IPCC published its Fifth Assessment Report and it wasn’t until 2021 until the Sixth Assessment Report (the one just published) was released. Moving forward, 2022 is set to be the year the IPCC releases follow up reports to the Sixth Assessment that dig in deeper to the sub-sector, sub-region implications. But the 2021 IPCC was anticipated for quite some time and its release simply represented the IPCC moving along with its predefined schedule.
What are the main takeaways from this 2021 IPCC report?
So, with this Sixth Assessment Report recently dropped by the IPCC, what were the high level bullet points that people should recognize? The goal of this report was to share best knowledge surrounding the current state of the climate, the possible future scenarios for where the climate is likely to go given the trajectory we’re currently on, and information for climate risk assessments and strategies to limit these negative outcomes. The entire report extends to hundreds of pages, and even the summaries extend for dozens of pages, so you would be forgiven for not being eager to read it in full yourself.
But for some of the key takeaways, the IPCC shared with the world some sobering information that includes the following:
- The human influence on warming the world’s atmosphere, water, and land is unequivocal and leading to widespread changes
- The scale of changes already observed is to a degree not seen for thousands of years
- Extreme weather like heatwaves, tropical storms, droughts, and more can already be connected to climate change today
- We’re already on a pathway of temperature raises between 1.5 oC and 2oC by midcentury, even with aggressive and immediate action
- Future outcomes are less likely to benefit from using ocean and land carbon sinks because of the abundance of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere
- Many of the changes already observed in the ocean and ice caps are already irreversible
- To limit the human-induced global warming impacts, it is imperative to limit cumulative CO2 emissions, achieve net zero emissions, and reduce other critical greenhouse gases like methane
These outcomes represent just some of the overarching and most readily understood impacts, but of course the report dives much more deeply into each of these and other impacts.
What’s specifically different in this report compared with others like it?
While the average American today does, in fact, care about climate change and want to see systematic change to prevent the worst of the climate crisis, the casual observer can be forgiven for not understanding how the outcomes listed above are really all that different from what we’ve already been told. After all, we know that the changing climate is hazardous, is causing extreme weather, and we need to stop releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That information has been central to all of these debates for years already, so what exactly is new in this Sixth Assessment from the IPCC?
The highlights of what’s changed (and, notably, why that is alarming) include the following:
- Previous reports, forecasts, and international goals had the globe striving to prevent a 1.5oC temperature raises by 2050. This new report from the IPCC essentially takes that off the table, noting that we’re expected to reach that level between 2030 and 2035 with little recourse and so now the goalposts are moved to strive to prevent even worse global temperature increases
- This report from the IPCC uses the most direct and conclusive language yet with regard to whether the changes seen in the climate are human-caused or are just part of cyclical global events: the human impact has been notably called unequivocal, the most definitive and striking language used for that connection yet.
- In recent decades, the thought had been that we were running out of time but we could still do something to prevent the worst impacts of climate change and even return natural systems to their prior state. In this recent IPCC report, that has been also removed from the possibility with some of the impacts to the planet being irreversible and noting that in those instances, there is no going back.
Put all together, this report is not ‘more of the same,’ but rather the scientists of the IPCC are truly using as forceful of language and descriptions to highlight just how dire the situation has become and stress that every minute without action is causing undue and now irreversible damage. That vigor in conclusion is why all working in energy, climate, environment, and similar fields recognized the recent IPCC report as the most sobering document of this type yet.
What are relevant thought leaders saying and doing in response?
Given the length, depth, and seriousness of the IPCC report, it can be hard for most people to truly process and understand what comes next? How should we interpret this information and how should we use it to plan for the next step? This situation highlights the importance of thought leaders in different disciplines, industries, and regions, as we can look to these leaders to highlight what should come next—as it’s important not to just read the information and feel scared or anxious, but rather highlight how to take this concerning information and turn it into action:
Gina McCarthy, White House National Climate Advisor:
Today’s IPCC report confirms what we already know: climate change is an urgent threat that requires bold action. That’s why we’ve launched a whole-of-government response to the climate crisis. And we’re going to create good paying jobs along the way. There’s no time to waste. – via Twitter
Al Gore, Former Vice President and Climate Advocate:
One of the most important lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic is that when scientists are warning about a looming threat, we all ought to listen..We need climate action NOW. We cannot rely on vague pledges with distant deadlines. We need concrete plans to phase out fossil fuels in the near term. As the scientists at the (IPCC) make clear: there is no time left to waste. - via Twitter
Fred Krupp, President of the Environmental Defense Fund:
“The report makes clear that if we don’t move aggressively to cut the pollution heating our atmosphere, we are guaranteeing a less stable, less habitable and less prosperous world now and in the future.” – via Press Release
Greta Thunberg, Climate Advocate:
“The new IPCC report contains no real surprises. It confirms what we already know from thousands previous studies and reports - that we are in an emergency. It’s a solid (but cautious) summary of the current best available science.” – via Twitter
Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State:
“As countries prepare for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, this report is a stark reminder that we must let science drive us to action. This moment requires world leaders, the private sector, and individuals to act together with urgency and do everything it takes to protect our planet and our future in this decade and beyond.” – via Press Statement