Making Sense of the Latest IPCC Report (2023)
The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), a UN agency with climatologists from over 70 counties included) has just come out with a new report about climate change. (Available at https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sixth-assessment-report-cycle/.) The news is not good.
Basically, their arguments have gotten more refined, more specific: climate change is impacting humans, animals, and plants to a greater and greater extent, things are getting worse, and its impact will escalate the longer we hesitate to take resolute steps to address it.
The IPCC is making several points: the Earth’s temperature is rising and, with each increased increment, things are getting worse; moving forward, without major changes this decade, they will get exponentially worse. That’s my way of transmitting “scientese” into understandable English.
A few words before continuing: this “Synthesis Report of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report: Summary for Policy Makers” (March 19, 2023) is an effort to synthesize findings from a number of groups of scientists working together, each which focuses on a particular area (energy, biodiversity, etc.), and to present them to policymakers, many who have PhDs, often in the physical sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) and related fields. This is not written for the general public, but it needs to be shared in ways that other educated people and interested lay persons can understand; hence, this article by a PhD in Sociology who recognizes the importance of sharing technical writing far beyond the scientific community.
The report is broken into three sections: after the introduction, it discusses current status and trends; future climate change, risks, and long-term responses; and responses in the near term (meaning up to 2040). In this article, I focus primarily on current status and trends, and following this report, do not discuss many of the changes taking place; I focus on some of the changes I believe are most salient.
In the introduction, they write: “This report recognizes the interdependence of climate, ecosystems and biodiversity, and human systems….” (All quotes included, unless otherwise identified, are from the report and are italicized herein to draw attention to their specific wording; all temperatures provide use the Celsius scale, not Fahrenheit.)
In the report, they present findings from a wide-range of research, recognizing a range of possibilities; they give a median or mid-range (half of the scores are above and half below) result, with a very likely range between 5-95 percent of findings; this conveys the most likely range of 90% of the findings (pretty much guaranteeing the accuracy of the findings.) Reporting median findings is the best way to represent a range of numerical results; much more representative than averages.
Current Status and Trends
“Human activities, principally through emissions of greenhouse gasses, have unequivocally caused global warming, with global surface temperatures reaching 1.1 degree Celsius above 1850-1900 in 2011-2020.”
What this says, should it not be clear, is that human beings have caused the Earth’s surface temperature to rise—not natural processes—through emitting greenhouse gasses, which include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (NOx), and fluorinated gasses, with the first two being the most harmful. And we know the extent of this increase; compared to the median temperature from between the years 1850-1900, the median temperature between 2011 and 2020 was 1.1 degree Celsius higher. (The years 1850-1900 were chosen to represent “pre-industrial” civilization as this was the first period where climate records were generally kept globally, and industrialization was confined to only a few countries.)
This gives us a more stable period of comparison: median temperature across a 50-year period, instead of just the usual single years of 1750 (beginning of the industrial revolution) or 1880 (when detailed records began being compiled). Thus, we can be more confident of reported increases/decreases in the future.
Accordingly, we know that 58% of the approximate 2400 Giga-tons of carbon dioxide and equivalents emitted by humans into the atmosphere—a gigaton is equivalent to one billion metric tons or 2.2 trillion pounds; see NASA’s web site regarding equivalent measurements at https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2933/visualizing-the-quantities-of-climate-change/ –were emitted between 1850 and 1989 (139 years), while the other 42% were emitted between 1990-2019 , roughly a 30-year period. This shows that the annual rate of emissions is increasing faster in the second period than in the initial one.
The report continues, discussing very tiny amounts that have such a huge impact on atmospheric and ultimately planetary conditions: “In 2019, atmospheric CO2 concentrations (410 parts per million) were higher than any time in a least 2 million years (high confidence) and concentration of methane (1866 parts per billion) and nitrous oxide (333 parts per billion) were higher than any time in at least 800,000 years (very high confidence).” It should be noted that in February 2023, according to NASA, the atmospheric CO2 level was 420 parts per million. (For a visual representation of the last 800,000 years of CO2 emissions—none which exceeded 300 parts per million until roughly 1950—see https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence.)
[These “confidence terms” are based on the type, amount, quality and consistency of evidence: very high confidence means 9 out of 10 chances of being correct; high confidence means 8 out of 10 chances of being correct; and medium confidence means about 5 out of 10 chances. See Sophie Lewis and Allie Gallant, “Lost in Translation: Confidence and Certainty in Climate Science” at Lost in translation: confidence and certainty in climate science (theconversation.com), August 22, 2013.)
This is important. As carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere, the more it attacks the very atmosphere that protects the Earth from the Sun’s rays. In other words, as I put it in a previous article, “the essential relationship is the more greenhouse gases released, the more damage to the atmosphere, leading to more warming and many related problems.” (“Climate Change is Real and It’s Happening Now,” at https://www.pnw.edu/faculty/kim-scipes-ph-d/publications/climate-change-publication/ under “Basic Understandings of Climate Change.”)
We can see some of the impacts of this. Consider sea levels. Sea levels have been rising around the globe, and the rate of increase has been accelerating. Between 1901 and 1970, the average sea level rise was 1.3 millimeters (mm) per year. Between 1971 and 2006, it rose 1.9 mm a year. Yet, between 2006 and 2018, it rose 3.7 mm per year.
So what? Well, when you consider the large numbers of cities around the world that are on the coasts of oceans—Tokyo, Yokohama (Japan), Shanghai, Hong Kong (China), Haiphong and Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), Manila (Philippines), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Jakarta (Indonesia), Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney (Australia), Kolkata and Mumbai (India), Durban and Cape Town (South Africa), Alexandria (Egypt), Athens (Greece), Naples, Rome, Genoa and Turin (Italy), Marseilles (France), Barcelona (Spain), Lisbon (Portugal), London, Liverpool and Glasgow (United Kingdom), Antwerp (Belgium), Rotterdam and Amsterdam (Netherlands), Stockholm (Sweden) all come to mind, and then you get to Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Newport News, Savannah, Jacksonville, Miami, Tampa, Mobile, New Orleans, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle for a few in the US—then you are talking hundreds of millions of people who are at increasing risk from sea level rises. And then when we recognize that most coastal cities have major infrastructures—sanitation, transportation, electricity—below street level, then you can see that rising oceans threaten the well-being of people before rising to street level.
And will people in these areas sit there passively as the water rises and drown, or will they migrate inland to higher ground? And where will they go, and will there be jobs and food and housing for them in their new locations…?
The report argues that globally “approximately 3.3 to 3.6 billion people live in contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change.” That’s almost one out of every two people on the planet!
Further, “Increasing weather and climate extreme events have exposed millions of people to acute food insecurity and reduced water insecurity, with the largest adverse impacts observed in many locations and/or communities in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, [Less Developed Countries], Small Islands and the Arctic, and globally for Indigenous Peoples, small-scale food producers and low-income households.” Altogether, “Between 2010 and 2020, human mortality from floods, droughts and storms was 15 times higher in highly vulnerable regions, compared to regions with very low vulnerability.”
But this damage extends beyond human beings. “Climate change has caused substantial damages, and increasingly irreversible losses, in terrestrial, freshwater, cryospheric, and coastal and open ocean ecosystems” (emphasis added). We humans are killing the physical environment on which human survival depends.
Yet the physical environment is not the only victim; humans are especially susceptible to extreme heat events:
In all regions, increases in extreme heat events have resulted in human mortality and morbidity (very high confidence). The occurrence of climate-related food-borne and water-borne diseases (very high confidence) and the incidence of vector-borne diseases (high confidence) have increased. In assessed regions, some mental health challenges are associated with increasing temperatures (high confidence), trauma from extreme events (very high confidence), and loss of livelihoods and culture (high confidence). Climate and weather extremes are increasingly driving displacement in Africa, Asia, North America (high confidence), and Central and South America (medium confidence), with small island states in the Caribbean and South Pacific being disproportionately affected relative to their small population size (high confidence).
And this is not just limited to isolated cases:
In urban areas, observed climate change has caused adverse impacts on human health, livelihoods and key infrastructures. Hot extremes have intensified in cities. Urban infrastructure, including transportation, water, sanitation and energy systems have been compromised by extreme and slow-onset events, with resulting economic losses, disruptions of services and negative impacts to well-being. Observed adverse impacts are concentrated amongst economically and socially marginalized urban residents (high confidence).
While there are obviously other cases, Super Storm Sandy’s assault on New York City during 2012 shows unequivocally that urban areas are at serious risk, and it is people of color and the poor of all colors who are particularly at risk.
To sum up: “Adverse impacts from human-caused climate change will continue to intensify,” with widespread and substantial impacts and related losses and damages attributed to climate change having been observed, and that impacts are driven by changes in multiple, physical climate conditions that have been caused by human behaviors.
And those physical climate conditions have primarily been by emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. As we continue to do that, we are hastening the risk to human, animal, and most plants’ survival on this planet.
Now, admittedly, there have been significant efforts in some areas and localities to address the problems of climate change; these are referred to “adaptation” and “mitigation.” Adaptation to climate change has resulted in “at least 170 countries and many cities including adaptation in their climate policies and planning processes (high confidence).” However, “Most observed adaptation responses are fragmented, incremental, sector-specific, and unequally distributed across regions … with the largest adaptation gaps among lower income groups (high confidence).”
Key barriers to adaptation are limited resources, lack of private sector and citizen involvement, insufficient mobilization of finance (including for research), low climate literacy, lack of political commitment, limited research and/or slow and low-uptake of adaptation science, and low sense of urgency (emphasis added).
Mitigation, on the other hand, refers to efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change, such as building sea walls to respond to sea level rise. Many of these efforts are basically stop-gap measures that suggest that our political leaders are responding to the problem when they really are not.
The issue, going forward, is how do we respond? The crisis is real and getting worse. What are we going to do about it?
Future Climate Change, Risks, and Long-term Responses
There are a number of choices in how we respond that humans collectively can take; we have the power to choose how we go forward.
Now, in reality, without broad, widespread, and continued mobilization that is based on solid organization and determined actions, these decisions will be made by people who have political and economic power in our world; and their collective interests are not to help out people around the world but to maintain their own wealth and power. We can never forget that. (The report did not say that; I did: as the result of over 50 years of political activism, I aver it is the truth.) In fact, as the report states, “The 10% of households with the highest per capita emissions contribute 35-45% of global consumption-based household [greenhouse gas] emissions, while the bottom 50% contribute 13-15% (high confidence.)” And, I argue, that means we must unify with forces around the globe; no one people can make the required changes by themselves.
However, what climate science provides us with are various options by which we can go forward. These scientists can tell us the different options and the ramifications of choosing each one against another. This is invaluable and necessary, but not sufficient. They can tell us what options are available, in their opinions, but they do not tell us which ones we should take; that is a collective political decision that humans must collectively consider and choose. Yet, having these options gives us places from where to start our discussions.
To do this, scientists prepare models that will suggest future behavior: if we choose this, then that is likely to happen. And it’s up to us to decide if these ramifications are worthy and/or desirable within our current context. (And then we must decide which ones we will organize to achieve, and how hard we are willing to fight to attain them.)
However, when one looks at models, we must always remember that models are based on assumptions: if you assume this, then that likely that will happen. So, scientific models are not certainties; they are “best guesses” as to what will result if we do or allow certain things to happen and depend on the assumptions included that affect the outcomes.
The report spends considerable time discussing these plausible models, but it doesn’t do it in a systematic way that is easily accessible to non-physical scientists. And I’m not going to spend a lot of time discussing them, although I will say a little about them and urge each of you to read the report for yourself and your friends.
The report gives us five plausible scenarios: if we are willing to accept an increase of 1.4 degrees Celsius above the 1850-1900 median temperature; 1.8 degrees; 2.7 degrees; 3.6 degrees and 4.4 degrees. They give these options with the understanding that “Global warming will continue to increase in the near term (2020-2040) mainly due to increased cumulative CO2 emissions in nearly all considered scenarios and modelled pathways. Furthermore, “In the near term, global warming is more likely than not to reach 1.5 degrees even under the very low [greenhouse gas] emission scenario … and likely or very likely to exceed 1.5 degrees under higher emissions scenarios” (emphases in original report).
Why the emphasis on 1.5 degrees? It is the limit at which many scientists believe humans can survive without causing the physical environment to be destroyed. It is a controversial “limit,” and a considerable number of scientists believe it is too high. (For a cogent argument that the IPCC’s work is too conservative, see David Spratt, “IPCC: Separating the Science from the Politics?” March 30, 2023 at https://www.climatecodered.org/.) Nonetheless, it is the “target” set by the IPCC as being “relatively safe.” (See the 2018 IPCC Special Report: “Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees Celsius” at https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15.)
The point to remember, however, is that the greater the global warming, the greater the deleterious impacts on both human and natural environments, and these impacts will further worsen things for humans, animals and most plants while contributing to the worsening attacks on the physical environments on which we depend: “With every additional increment of global warming, changes in extremes continue to become larger” and “continued emissions will further affect all major climate system components.”
If exponential risk of change is not bad enough, the risk is ever worse; the report discusses likelihood and risks of unavoidable, irreversible or abrupt changes: “The likelihood and impacts of abrupt and/or irreversible changes in the climate system, including changes triggered when tipping points are reached, increase with further global warming (high confidence).”
The report ends clearly: “International cooperation is a critical enabler for achieving ambitions climate change mitigation, adaptation, and climate resilient development (high confidence).”
The science, I believe, is incontrovertible—climate change threatens the very existence of humans, animals, and most plants on this planet—although arguments can still be made about how soon we must resolutely act to actually have a chance of stopping this; some people argue that it’s already too late, while others believe it can be stopped if acted upon soon (by 2030), while others think we have more time: that is not settled. There is also hope that even if the Earth’s surface temperature exceeds 1.5 degrees, that future inventions could bring the temperature back below 1.5 degrees, and restore some kind of atmospheric stability, although I don’t see any evidence to date that supports the development of something that effective.
However, there are two things not mentioned in the report: war and capitalism.
With any war (Russia v. Ukraine, Israel v. Palestine, Saudi Arabia v. Yemen, US vs. the world), there is tremendous death and environmental destruction. Focusing only on the latter here, every shell shot, every plane launched, every bridge or building struck harms the environment. Period. And this environmental and human destruction doesn’t end with the cessation of hostilities: people in Vietnam are still dealing with unexploded ordinance and poisoning of their people and environment from US use of Agent Orange and other defoliants, and the “American war,” as the Vietnamese call it, ended in 1975.
We must do everything we can to end war on this planet, and especially the US efforts to dominate every country on Earth. And we also need to prevent any other country from establishing a subsequent empire.
Tied into that, although with a related albeit different dynamic, is capitalism. As seems obvious to me, the economic system’s immediate demand for increased production is killing us through the emission of greenhouse gases. Simply, it must be stopped as soon as possible; I don’t think there’s any support by anyone with any sense that capitalism will save us, that it will create the tools to remove carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gasses quick enough or sufficiently enough to keep the Earth’s temperature at 1.5 degrees or below, and especially not in the face of its need for increased production. And, even should something emerge that could even potentially solve this problem, it still would not address the exploitation, oppression, and inequalities required by capitalism.
Accordingly, I think we need to think out and propose more globally collective solutions that are designed and intended to surpass capitalism and its related problems. This obviously means drastically reducing growth in the more economically developed countries, while transferring money and resources to the less-developed countries, so they can try to adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change.
Neither war nor capitalism were mentioned in this report by the IPCC: something, obviously, is missing!
Climate change is threatening the very existence of humans, animals, and most plants on the planet. The evidence is overwhelming, and is getting more and more established and uncontroversial over time.
Yet we need to include many more things into the mix; I’ve begun here by including the need to end all wars and capitalism as well. I don’t think we can do this by continuing to think as the status quo demands; I think we need to think outside of the box, if you will, to have any chance to make the changes necessary for survival of all species. (For one example, although needing to be updated is my 2017 article, “Addressing Seriously the Environmental Crisis,” which is on-line at https://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/classracecorporatepower/vol5/iss1/2/.)
It is clear that we cannot depend on our economic or political “leaders”: if we’re going to survive, we have to do it ourselves, but together, and globally.
Kim Scipes, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Purdue University Northwest (PNW) in Westville, Indiana, who has been a political activist for over 50 years. He has taught an undergraduate course on “Environment and Social Justice” since 2006. He was recently presented with a 2023 Outstanding Faculty Engagement Award by his peers at PNW for his years of service to his communities, both on and off campus.