Energy & Environmental Policy Global Global Policy Studies & International Security

Clearing Up Expectations

What does it really mean to stop climate change?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently made headlines around the world with the release of its Sixth Assessment Report on the state of the global climate. The report presents a variety of potential scenarios for the future based on how much the planet warms in the coming years, and the findings are stark. As it currently stands, limiting warming to the United Nations’ target of 1.5 degrees Celsius is a best-case scenario, and achieving that goal will require immediate large-scale action. 

People around the world shared scores of news articles, Twitter threads, and other commentary following the release of the IPCC report that generally fell into one of two categories: complete despair or misleading positivity. The former camp believes that runaway climate change is inevitable, and humanity is doomed. The latter focuses on how to stop climate change or climate disasters, and pushes a “what would it take to turn climate change around”-type message. Optimists are correct to point out that fatalism detracts from the potential to prevent future temperature increases. Yet the language used to discuss climate change can be misleading, and everyone must understand the difficult reality of a best-case climate change scenario.   

When people see phrases like “stopping climate change,” they often assume it means that rising temperatures and all the consequences associated with climate change will come to an end. However, when experts refer to stopping climate change, they are only referring to stopping the average global temperature from increasing. The disasters and other phenomena related to existing climate change will persist.

In truth, even if all greenhouse gas emissions abruptly stopped tomorrow, the planet would still be dealing with serious climate change impacts such as heat waves and sea level rise. And of course, greenhouse gas emissions won’t be stopping tomorrow, which means those built-in challenges will intensify in the coming years. The IPCC reports tht many of the current impacts of climate change will be irreversible for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. This includes higher ocean temperatures, deep ocean acidification, and continued ice loss in the Arctic. This is due to a combination of factors such as carbon dioxide’s long lifespan in the atmosphere and feedback loops in the environment.

Any commentary that suggests future climate-related disasters can be avoided by limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is misleading, and readers should be wary of overly-optimistic claims. The planet is currently about 1.09 degrees C warmer on average compared to the pre-industrial period and the impacts are clear.

This June, an unimaginable heat wave enveloped the Pacific Northwest for more than four days, killing more than 800 people and one billion marine animals. A couple of weeks later, floods caused by unprecedented rainfall destroyed villages in Western Germany and Belgium, with similar floods hitting China a week later.

Even now, wildfires caused by dry conditions and recent heat waves are raging in the Western United States, and July was just declared the hottest month on record. As the world approaches 1.5 degrees C of warming, these types of climate change-related disasters will become increasingly more common and severe. Although climate change-related disasters like the ones that occurred this summer are the new norm, it is possible to prevent worse disasters by stopping continued global warming and adapting to this new reality.

The IPCC report states that each fraction of a degree of warming matters because every incremental increase in global warming will worsen climate change impacts. This means that no matter how much warming occurs, it is never too late to act. If the United Nations’ self-imposed 1.5 degrees C limit is surpassed, it does not mean that climate change can no longer be addressed. Rather, it means the world  should mobilize even more rapidly to prevent a 2 degrees C increase.

With the UN’s Climate Change Conference approaching this fall, state leaders must decide on a course of action to address climate change. The choices made now will not only determine the health of the planet for the foreseeable future, but also our ability to cope with the consequences of what is already a drastically altered global climate.

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