A California wildfire burning in the state’s Sierra Nevadas.
There’s plenty of chatter over the latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and that should be no surprise: It’s a few thousand pages long, includes the work and contributions of about 750 authors, cites more than 14,000 studies, and has a smidge over 78,000 comments from governments and climate change experts. The IPCC report was also approved by the 195 nations within the United Nations.
Trying to summarize this IPCC report is like summarizing a dictionary. There certainly is a lot of text in there, but the key takeaways are plain: The consensus is that climate change is here, it’s undeniable, the outlook is bad, and while there is hope, some of the damage already or to be inflicted cannot be rolled back. Here are a few takeaways as there is no shortage of noise out there.
Climate change is “widespread, rapid and intensifying,” the IPCC said firmly in announcing this report. This isn’t about theory or what might happen: The IPCC report describes what is occurring now and what will happen soon, and says so with statistical certainty. The numbers are overwhelming, and the effects, from flooding to extreme heat, will accelerate in the coming years unless there’s a strong worldwide plan in place to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. As summed up in the first three words opening the report, “It is unequivocal.”
The Guardian’s lead environment reporter, Damian Carrington, sums it up: “The scientific language of the report is cold and clear but cannot mask the heat and chaos that global heating is unleashing on the world, he writes. “In other words, we have blown 86 percent of our carbon budget already, though the report says the science is clear that if emissions are slashed then temperatures will stop rising in a decade or two and the increases in deadly extreme events will be strongly limited.”
Since “global warming” entered the lexicon in the late 1980s, much of the conversation made it come across as an abstract, amorphous term. Sure, climate change is happening, but we won’t feel the effects for quite some time, we told ourselves. We can continue to kick the can down the road.
The climate change tin can is in reality a massive lead anvil that won’t budge.
That “quite some time” is now. We’re certainly living it this summer, and that should move more people, companies and governments to action. “Yet in the past few years, global warming has moved from a statistical property to an ambient condition of modern life,” wrote Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic. “A mega-drought seems to grip the American West without end. A series of wildfires have passed, like a baton, from one part of the world to another, going from California to the Amazon to Australia to Greece to California again.”
The U.S., with about 4 percent of the world’s population, has long consumed 25 percent of the world’s energy. Energy, of course, could be defined as fossil fuels. Fossil fuels have been a massive contributor to emissions. That figure may have shifted a bit over time, but U.S. citizens have long been defined as taking up a disproportionate use of the world’s resources.
The Joe Biden administration has introduced its share of plans that it says can help tackle the mounting crisis, but critics on the left say they don’t go far enough, while critics on the right have often made it clear any kind of climate action plan is a non-starter. Evidence does suggest, however, that bipartisanship is possible — energy storage is one example. Yet the history of U.S. politics doesn’t bode well: Biden, after all, is linked to a previous administration that tried, and whiffed, in getting a climate action legislation passed more than a decade ago. Washington, D.C. is even more polarized now.
Nevertheless, considering its wealth, population and impact on the global stage, the U.S. arguably has the most at stake when it comes to the climate crisis. Its companies are invested in supply chains, production sites and offices worldwide. Then there’s the national security angle: The Department of Defense alone has about 1,700 installations on coastlines alone worldwide. And as the IPCC report made clear, yes, sea level rise is a thing, and there’s no lowering of the sea level back.
We often hear about “targeted investments,” and they can certainly have a role to play in the private sector working with governments to take on climate change.
For example, Forbes sustainability reporter Felicia Jackson recently interviewed experts about what the report's findings mean for business. By and large, they said aligning with the urgency of the crisis will require a massive transformation across the private sector, most notably in finance.
“The IPCC’s messages make sobering reading for all financial decision-makers," Kate Levick, associate director of sustainable finance at the think tank E3G, told Jackson. "Recent shifts towards net-zero, resilient investment by private sector firms and governments must now be rapidly accelerated, now that we have an updated understanding both of the risks involved and of the limited time window to address them. The financial system must support the economic transformation that we need.”
Net-zero pledges have become all the rage in recent months as companies say they are upping the ante with ambitious goals to slash carbon emissions by 2040 and even by 2030. But recent research shows that many of these plans will achieve little or nothing for a bevy of reasons: Many plans rely on technologies that don’t even exist yet, plans such as tree-planting may never materialize, and ongoing lobbying activities encourage politicians to prevent the very things these companies say they’re committed to achieving, researchers warn.
Plus, even if a 2030 net-zero plan is legitimate, there’s a race against time. As independent journalist Judd Legum pointed out this week, lofty corporate speak is only obfuscating the facts at hand. “By focusing on 'net-zero' emission reduction goals years or decades into the future, large companies obscure the present reality. Some companies that are making ambitious pledges in 2040 or 2030 are seeing their carbon emissions go up in the short term,” Legum wrote this week in his Popular Information newsletter. “The IPCC report also makes clear that climate change is not a problem that can be solved by a few companies making voluntary pledges. Rather, there needs to be immediate and systemic action to reduce emissions. This kind of action can only come from the government.”
Image credit: Ross Stone/Unsplash
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.