Reports from scientists spelling out accelerating effects of climate change have been produced regularly over the past 30 years under the auspices of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But never have their findings had such relevance to what is happening to global citizens right now.
Extreme weather is the new normal in the form of rampaging wildfires, devastating floods, and heatwaves with yet more record temperatures. That applies just as much to rich Californians, climate-vulnerable people in Sub-Saharan Africa, those living close to the Arctic circle in Siberia and, yes, the inhabitants of Ireland.
There can be no denial, cop-outs, or insisting climate disruption is of another place or another time; possibly in the future. It is on our doorsteps; the immediacy of the climate threat is staring humanity in the face.
The latest IPCC report on the physical effects of climate change reflects that reality, reinforced by scientific evidence that is more robust than ever. Every corner of the planet is already being affected and it could get far worse within decades, especially in the form of rising temperatures. What’s more, humans have pushed the climate into “unprecedented” territory; there is no easy way to say that.
For the first time the IPCC raises risks of “tipping points” – cascading effects that will be uncontrollable. It charts the inevitable sea level rise that is unlikely to be reversed over the next thousands of years.
In that light, it is no exaggeration to say this has ominous implications for low-lying island states of the South Pacific, but equally applies to the exposed island of Ireland in the northwest Atlantic.
Meanwhile, the ability of land and ocean sinks to absorb carbon is ebbing away. All told, the term “climate crisis” is entirely justified.
Countries have delayed curbing their fossil fuel emissions for too long, so much so they can no longer stop global warming from intensifying over coming decades.
This probably heightens climate anxiety and feelings of helplessness, but there is a remarkable endorsement of how to mitigate its worst effects by pursuing a 50 per cent cut in emissions by 2030 and achieving net zero by 2050. The scientists don’t question its ability to contain temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees; a key aim of the Paris Agreement – so there is still a short window to prevent a harrowing future.
It requires collective action from national governments, big emitting corporations, and citizens everywhere; accepting how humans live and do business has to change radically, while protecting the most vulnerable in societies. In parallel, scaling up the deployment of nature-based solutions while enhancing biodiversity can provide critical momentum.
By way of assurance, this is not an all-or-nothing scenario whereby damnation beckons if we exceed 1.5 degrees, but actions have to be scaled up.
Prof Richard Betts of the Met Office Hadley Centre in the UK, who contributed to the report, explains: "It's important to note that 1.5-degree global warming is not a physical threshold when catastrophic impacts will suddenly kick in, as it is often portrayed. It's an indication of where the risks start to become substantial. Like the speed limit on a motorway, staying below it is not perfectly safe and exceeding it does not immediately lead to calamity, but the risks do increase if the limit is passed."
The bottom line is, he underlines, limiting warming to 1.5 degrees clearly needs much more urgent emissions cuts than is currently happening. “But if the target is still breached we should not assume all is lost and give up – it will still be worth continuing action on emissions reductions to avoid even more warming.”
Indications may be bleak, but there is cause for some optimism. If we can really get our act together to halve emissions within that 10-year timeframe, achieve climate neutrality by 2050 at the latest and have “negative emissions” thereafter (removal of carbon from the atmosphere), there’s a good chance we can keep temperatures in the longer term below 1.5 degrees and avoid the worst impacts of global overheating.
Much will be achieved in Ireland by addressing obvious issues around transport, redirecting agriculture to curb methane, overhauling the way we heat homes and embracing a “100 per cent renewables mindset” in the energy sector with a view to decarbonising power generation as soon and as efficiently as possible – which will catalyse an electrification revolution across the economy. All immense challenges, but doable – and bringing tangible rewards in time.
This report puts it up to climate negotiators who will gather in Glasgow at COP26 to do what they know is required; to reduce emissions further than currently envisaged to hit key Paris targets. In tandem, it underlines the need to ramp up efforts to adapt to our changing climate and to increase resilience to withstand more frequent and more extreme weather disasters in the future. Recent extreme weather events have shown we are all exposed to climate risks – and ill prepared.