The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued a dire warning that our current efforts at addressing the problem of climate change are not keeping pace with the increase of the rate of global warming, and that we need to act quickly if we are to avoid evoking the more immediate catastrophes that come with allowing the planet’s climate to rise past 1.5ºC (2.7ºF) above the pre-industrial average. This warning comes with the admission that we can indeed meet this seemingly impossible goal, but it comes at a cost: the human community needs to cut its carbon emissions by nearly half in the next 12 years.
The IPCC report, titled "Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C" (SR15), was released on October 7 during the Panel’s 48th session in Incheon, South Korea. SR15 outlines the potential consequences of allowing the Earth’s temperature to rise above the maximum of 1.5°C above the pre-industrial average, as outlined in the Paris Agreement, and contrasts these outcomes with what the climate would experience if the global average temperature were allowed to rise to 2°C (3.6°F) above normal. UN Secretary-General António Guterres called the contents of SR15 "an ear-splitting wake-up call to the world. It confirms that climate change is running faster than we are — and we are running out of time."
The report, consisting of the work of 91 authors from 40 countries, 133 contributing authors, over 6,000 cited references, and 42,001 expert and government review comments, warns that at our current rate of carbon emissions, the Earth’s temperature will rise to 1.5°C (2.7°F) above normal by 2040. Earlier estimates regarding the effects of global warming were based on a 2.0°C (3.6°F) increase, but this new body of work has discovered that these effects were underestimated by a full half-degree Celsius.
The report does stress that reaching these goals are not impossible, but our civilization is faced with cutting carbon emissions by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and down to near-zero emissions by 2050. The use of coal for will have to be reduced to between 1 and 7 percent of total electricity production, with renewables such as solar and wind having to take up at least two-thirds of the generating burden.
"This report makes it clear: There is no way to mitigate climate change without getting rid of coal," said Duke University climate scientist and report co-author Drew Shindell. Despite the assertions of certain policy makers, there is no such thing as "clean coal", and available carbon capture technology is considered to be too expensive to be used for commercial use.
Although the authors of the report aren’t optimistic that world leaders will have the political will to put the required changes in motion, they do point out that the 1.5°C target is attainable, although it will require a major transformation of the world economy. "This will take unprecedented changes in all aspects of society — especially in key sectors such as land, energy, industry, buildings, transport and cities," says Secretary-General Guterres, whom calls for the world to "drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels and phase out coal by 2050; ramp up installation of wind and solar power; invest in climate-friendly sustainable agriculture; and consider new technologies such as carbon capture and storage."
In an op-ed published in The Province, columnist Gwynne Dyer says that people are less likely to be willing to make the changes necessary to maintain the 1.5°C threshold because it’s just the environment at stake, but these would be changes "that people would readily accept if they faced an imminent invasion by Nazis or Martians"; indeed, we do have a precedent represented by one of those examples, a time when a significant portion of the world’s population — both world leaders and civilians — worked together to face such an existential threat. However, unlike World War II, we’re all supposed to be on the same side in this fight.
In his newest Journal entry, Whitley discusses the frustration he’s experiencing from his lifelong attempt to bring awareness to these issues — only to have his warnings heeded by precious few — and the immediate need for strong leadership in this fight from the world’s remaining superpower.