A major United Nations (UN) scientific report has concluded what any sentient being has long known to be true: Global warming is not only real, it is getting worse and is now unavoidable. On Monday, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published their AR6 Climate Change 2021 report, which found that there is no way to stop global warming from "intensifying over the next 30 years," The New York Times writes, but a short window of time to slow things down. This is all, of course, thanks to powerful countries refusing to curb their fossil-fuel emissions, according to the report.
While recent record-setting heatwaves, devastating wildfires, and historic floods would lead many to believe that, in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic, humanity is living in the "worst-case" global warming scenario, the report finds that simply is not true. It's going to get worse, if you can bring yourself to believe it, though there is a small window for those in positions of power to make the "worse" a smidgeon less catastrophic.
"The IPCC report makes clear that the United States, like many other countries, is facing a host of climate change challenges going forward," Dr. Kim Cobb, Ph.D., professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences, Georgia Institute of Technology, says. "These range from rising sea levels along our coastlines to changes in water resources that are linked to changes in their water cycle, including extreme precipitation. And of course, the threat of heatwaves, wildfires, and droughts are also going to be increased going forward."
Thanks to burning coal, oil, and gas, humans have increased Earth's temperature by 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 19th century. And now that nations have postponed or altogether refused to curb those emissions, even if drastic change is made today, global warming is "likely to rise around 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next two decades," per the same Times report. As a result, as many as 1 billion people would be subjected to life-threatening heat waves; hundreds of millions more would lose access to water due to cataclysmic droughts; additional animal and plant wildlife would become extinct.
And of course, marginalized communities will bear the brunt of the increased intensity of climate change and its devastating aftermath. Currently, Black Americans breathe 56% more particulate matter than others, according to a 2019 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). As a result, Black Americans with asthma have a three times higher chance of going to the hospital or dying from asthma than white Americans. During heat waves, Black Americans are twice as likely to die compared to other groups, according to a 2008 study pushed in the American Journal of Epidemiology, and counties with large Black populations are already exposed to extreme temperatures two to three more days per year than those with small Black populations.
"There's really one key message that emerges from this report: We are out of time," Cobb says. "And this report really provides compelling, scientific linkages between the headlines that we see today and what we know about the physics of the climate system and how it's being impacted by rising greenhouse gases."
Yet the palpable, collective feeling of many in the wake of the report's release was one of nihilistic dread. Like many who have thrown up their hands and accepted a massive loss of life as a result of COVID-19, it is easy to look over this harrowing report and conclude the Earth is on a path towards inevitable destruction. But that viewpoint — while understandable, especially in the midst of the past year when so much has been out of our collective control and we've watched those in positions of power do the absolute least to prevent people from dying — is a privileged one.
In truth, there is something we — as individuals, as communities, as voters who can and should demand the most of our elected officials, as countries — can do to protect the most vulnerable from a rise in climate temperature. For example, if countries make a coordinated effort to stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2050, it's possible humanity could remove massive amounts of carbon from the air, per The Times. In doing so, global warming would level off at 1.5 degrees Celsius — not great, but far more manageable than what would occur if humanity did nothing.
"I think one of the most valuable things about this report is that it provides a rich framework for assessing regional impacts of ongoing climate changes," Cobb says. "And we can do that a lot better in this round than we could in previous reports. And so that provides really a tapestry to bring to life what specific regions may be facing going forward and of course what communities can do to keep themselves safe."