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Heed the IPCC Climate Change Report

Heed the IPCC Climate Change Report

November 13, 2018

by Diane White Husic, dean of the School of Natural and Health Sciences and Interim Environmental Science and Studies program director 

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Morning Call on November 6, 2018

On October 8th, a significant report was released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The highly technical document has a ridiculously long title: Global Warming of 1.5°C, an IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. In case you missed the release announcement amidst all the other news stories and campaign ads for the upcoming elections, the bottom line is that countries need to do much more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to build resilience against the increasingly dangerous impacts of climate change. And they need to do it quickly.

One day after the report was released, a tropical depression became Hurricane Michael which, on October 10th, made landfall in Florida as the third-most intense Atlantic hurricane to do so in this country. Just one month earlier, Hurricane Florence, the wettest tropical storm recorded in the Carolinas, hit the east coast and wreaked havoc for days. Both storms resulted in damage totaling in the billions of dollars, destroyed businesses, and significant loss of life. According to the annual Global Risk Landscape reports published by the World Economic Forum, environmental risks, especially extreme weather events and temperatures, have increased over the years in terms of both likelihood and impact. The IPCC report provides further evidence that such events and environmental risk will continue to worsen.

IPCC reports, which go back to 1990, analyze published scientific literature that is relevant to understanding the risk of human-induced climate change. These assessments inform the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – the people who negotiate international agreements such as the 2015 Paris Agreement. This agreement, which to date has been ratified or officially accepted by 181 of 197 countries, including the United States, aims to “strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.” Because many nations were concerned that a 2-degree limit on warming was an insufficient target, the UNFCCC invited the IPCC to provide a special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C. This was timed to guide the deliberations at the upcoming 24th conference of the parties (COP24) in Katowice, Poland in December where negotiators will attempt to address the many unresolved complexities of this global environmental, social, and political challenge.

Despite President Trump’s announcement that the U.S. will pull out of the Paris Agreement, we cannot legally do so until November 2020. It is uncertain how this withdrawal will play out, but once we do, our country will join the list of nations including Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Iran, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Oman, South Sudan, the Russian Federation and others – the 8% – who haven’t ratified the agreement. Interesting company to be in. After this announcement, a bipartisan coalition of governors known as the U.S. Climate Alliance formed. The alliance is comprised of 16 states (not Pennsylvania) and Puerto Rico who are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement. Although the new IPCC report demonstrates that those current goals are insufficient to keep global warming below 1.5°C, I applaud this work of this Alliance and the wide array of climate change initiatives happening at the city and state levels across the country. It is certainly better than doing nothing.

We should all read the IPCC report, although I doubt that most will do so. The most sobering section of the report is Chapter 3 in which the impacts of a 1.5 °C global warming on natural and human systems are described. Data show that the planet has already warmed by 1.0 °C and we are on target to see the 1.5 °C increase by 2030 to 2052. Besides even more extreme weather events, there will be dire impacts on food and water security, on our terrestrial, wetland and ocean ecosystems, and on our economy. Just think of how a single hurricane affects businesses, food crops and livestock, shipping, transportation corridors, communications and the transmission of electricity.

Whether you read the report or not, consider talking with one of the many scientists at the numerous institutions of higher education in the Lehigh Valley region. Get their interpretation of the findings in this report. Review the positions of our various political candidates on climate change. Think about all the strange weather events we have had in Pennsylvania and the country recently. Talk to farmers about their crop losses or the ski resorts about their recent ski seasons. Talk to health officials about the rise in cases of West Nile Fever. Ask friends and relatives in Florida about the toxic algal blooms. Tangible signs of change are all around us, all of which are consistent with the predictions documented in the almost 3 decades’ worth of IPCC reports.

In a recent CBS 60 Minutes interview, President Trump accused climate scientists of having a “political agenda” with respect to climate change and he cast doubt on whether humans were responsible for this global phenomenon. According to the Handbook of Public Policy Analysis, “a political agenda is a list of subjects or problems to which government officials as well as individuals outside the government are paying serious attention at any given time.” As both an individual outside the government and a scientist who has been involved in studying the impacts of rising greenhouse gases on photosynthetic organisms or ecosystems since the 1980’s, I guess I have to agree that climate change is a political agenda for me. It is a serious problem that deserves the attention of all of us.