Last week, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a shocking report on the impacts of global warming to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels — a diplomatically and scientifically relevant benchmark for global warming identified in the 2016 Paris Agreement. So what’s significant about the report? It’s the first report of its kind, since previous reports focused on the 2ºC threshold set at prior international conferences. It paints a dire portrait: Many of the disasters we have feared at 2ºC could happen at 1.5ºC, and preventing global warming from reaching even this level will have life-and-death consequences for millions of people.
For a long time, the threshold beyond which we could not warm our planet has been 2ºC. This is a result of multilateral negotiations over the past several decades, but largely it’s because at this level of warming, much of the damage we will have done to the earth will be irreversible. At 2ºC of warming, for example, virtually all coral reefs could die.
The IPCC’s report warns that while planetary warming to 1.5ºC would be disastrous, it is significantly preferable to a world with 2ºC of warming. At the former, Arctic sea ice would vanish in the summer once per century, while in the latter scenario, it would vanish once per decade. Further, it’s still possible to limit warming to this level.
But of course, there’s a catch. To limit warming to 1.5ºC, the entire world must be engaged politically, and the global economy must be transformed, at likely an enormous up-front cost, all in the next 12 years. Already, there has been pushback from coal lobbying groups, and it’s not clear that the political will exists — even though the report is clear that apathy will most likely lead to climatic catastrophe by 2040.
It’s helpful that the IPCC presents a message of hope as well as urgency in its report. We can do this. It is essential to take coal out of the economy and to switch completely to dependable renewable energy (though unfortunately, the IPCC is increasingly hesitant about the use of nuclear power — a source of energy I’ve spoken on as valuable, reliable and established, as well as our best course of immediate action). When we face a crisis like global warming, it’s easy to lose hope. But, though it may seem small, everyone does have a role to play in protecting our future. Individuals need to significantly reduce energy consumption and think actively about how their habits affect the Earth. Disconnect the smart fridge; ride a bike; buy local. Further, the IPCC clearly rejects high-tech solutions for carbon recapture like iron fertilization, instead focusing on something we all can take part in: planting billions of trees. It’s all been said before, but it must be done at enormous scale. There is hope.