The latest U.N. report on the climate crisis is in, all daunting 3,675 pages of it. Fodder for hundreds of stories. This is the second of three reports that make up the Sixth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), known as AR6. The third AR6 report—a synthesis—is slated for release in September.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres tagged the first AR6 report released last summer as “code red for humanity.” Of the latest, he says, “Today’s IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership. With fact upon fact, this report reveals how people and the planet are getting clobbered by climate change.” Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of The Nature Conservancy calls today’s release the “Your House Is on Fire” report.
The very first IPCC assessment published in 1990 was just 332 pages. Its message is one we’ve heard with increasing urgency over the past three decades:
We are certain emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, chlorofluoro-carbons (CFCs), and nitrous oxide. These increases will enhance the greenhouse effect, resulting on average in an additional warming of the Earth's surface.
The longer emissions continue at present-day rates, the greater reductions would have to be for concentrations to stabilize at a given level.
Vast amounts of research since then have added details that don’t alter the original take. The key message of the newest report? “The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.”
But there is another message, too. While climate change-related impacts are happening right before our eyes and will worsen over the coming decades, that “concerted … action” could reduce harmful effects if we muster the political will to do so. A big if.
Says Guterres: “Unchecked carbon pollution is forcing the world’s most vulnerable on a frog march to destruction—now. This abdication of leadership is criminal.” Especially so for the most vulnerable. In that light, more than in previous reports, the impacts of inequality and injustice are spotlighted in the newest one, with the authors taking note of the impacts of “historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism, especially for many Indigenous Peoples and local communities.”
Many leaders, including President Biden, support the aspirational goal adopted in the Paris climate accord in 2015 to keep the average temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. But that would require eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels and other sources by 2050. Nations’ pledges to reduce emissions aren’t enough to achieve that goal even if they were being adhered to, which, in almost all cases, they’re not. And the trajectory we’re on right now, scientists say, will raise temperatures somewhere between 2 and 3 degrees. That registers bad and awful on the disaster gauge.
What needs more recognition is that making emissions cuts now are worth more to ameliorate harm than cuts in 10 or 15 years. Delays are literally killing people.
As you can see from the excellent Greenpeace briefing on the new IPCC report, it’s grim, frustrating, and often infuriating reading. That ought to add to the cry for action. But some people have just given up. Without doubt, anyone paying attention to the climate crisis is bound to be tempted to join the doomsayers. Climatologist Michael Mann has something to say about that in his new book, The Fight for the Planet—The New Climate War, which was published late last year. From Page 183:
But if the inactivists tend to understate the threat from climate change, there is a segment of the climate activist community that not only overstates it, but displays a distinct appetite for all-out doomism—portraying climate change not just as a threat that requires urgent response,m but as an essentially lost cause, a hopeless fight. From the standpoint of climate action, that’s problematic on several levels. First, it provides a useful wedge for inactivists to employ as they attempt to divide climate advocates by raising the very emotional question of whether it is too late to act.
Doomism is a form of “crypto-denialism,” or, if you like, ”climate nihilism.” The boundary between what constitutes denialism and what constitutes nihilism is fuzzy. As clean-tech author Ketan Joshi put it, “Doomism is the new denialism. Doomism is the new fossil fuel profit protectionism. Helplessness is the new message.” So it has been stocked by inactivists, primarily because it breeds disengagement.
Joseph Winters and Lisa Tran at Grist write:
There is still time to protect people and ecosystems from some of the worst impacts of climate change, the report says, but time is slipping away. The authors urge world leaders to prepare for worsening conditions by, among other things, conserving at least one-third of the world’s natural habitats. Forest conservation and management, for instance, can limit climbing risks from disease and wildfires, while restoring sponge-like wetlands and rivers can keep flooding in check. Preserving biodiverse forests and soggy peatlands has the added benefit of keeping some of the world’s biggest carbon sinks intact.
Changes to physical infrastructure, like building levees to safeguard against rising sea levels, can also help protect the up to 3.6 billion people who live in areas highly vulnerable to climate change, the report says. Other options include planned relocation — ”aligned with sociocultural values and development priorities, and underpinned by inclusive community engagement processes.”
Robert J. Lempert, the coordinating lead author for the point of departure and key concepts chapter of the new report, and director of the Frederick S. Pardee Center for Longer Range Global Policy and the Future Human Condition, says:
“[The report] really emphasizes how it’s more effective to work with nature as opposed to against it. Ecosystems are among the most vulnerable segments of our world to climate change. But by working with them using, say, wetlands in front of our settlements by the sea to help absorb any sea level storm surge or others is just one example; changing agricultural practices so that they absorb carbon as opposed to emit more carbon to the atmosphere. So there’s a lot of ways that we can harmonize human activities with nature to benefit both. And so the report has a real emphasis on that.”
There is a place between being a doomer and being a pollyanna, and we should strive to be neither. It pains me to see people doom-scrolling and urging other people to join them in despair. To accept that no matter what we do we’re screwed. That civilization is doomed. That Homo sapiens is doomed. That the planet itself is doomed. Pains me because none of this is inevitable. Scientists aren’t saying it is. What they are saying is that if we don’t take immediate, profound, transformative action, then we’re doomed. Quite a different perspective.
I believe the youth climate movement and their allies are on the verge of adding a new intensity to their actions in order to spur serious, immediate climate action. The optimistic part of me thinks they will succeed at this. Of course, anyone can speculate, and nobody can with certainty predict the outcome of this struggle.
But while there is no doubt that our climate situation offers plenty of reasons for being depressed, the last thing anyone should be doing right now—no matter depressed they may be—is spreading a gospel of cynicism and despair by saying or implying that climate activism is a waste of time because we’re unavoidably going down the shitter. True enough, getting our leaders—political and otherwise—to launch serious climate action could turn out to be undoable. We just don’t know. It’s also possible that no matter what we do we’re already past the point of no return. We just don’t know.
What we do know is that if we surrender to despair and don’t act and don’t work to get others to act, doom is all but guaranteed.