Welp, the Latest UN Climate Change Report Sure Is Bleak

Photo credit: Joe Raedle - Getty Images
Photo credit: Joe Raedle - Getty Images

From Popular Mechanics

  • A grim report released by the United Nations Environment Programme revealed that our current pace of global greenhouse gas emission has us reaching as high as a global temperature increase of 3.9 degrees Celsius (almost 7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100.

  • The report states that global greenhouse gas emissions would have to be cut by 7.6 percent annually for the next decade to meet the 1.5 degree Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) warming goal set by the Paris Climate Accord.

  • Scientists say that, despite the bleak outlook, there’s still hope that we can make the dramatic shifts needed to achieve these climate goals.

The United Nations released an exceptionally bleak report today, which warns that, at the current pace of greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures will rise by as much as 3.9 degrees Celsius (almost 7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100.

The report, published by the United Nations’ Environment Programme, aims to compare current rates of greenhouse gas emissions to the chief goals set by the 2015 Paris climate agreement: limiting an increase in global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

In order to hit our target by 2100, greenhouse gas emissions must fall by 7.6 percent annually starting in 2020, according to the report. “Every year of delay beyond 2020 brings a need for faster cuts, which become increasingly expensive, unlikely and impractical,” the report’s authors state. “Delays will also quickly put the 1.5C goal out of reach.”

Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane released into the atmosphere through the production and transport of fossil fuels trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere and dramatically change our climate. In the last decade, global greenhouse gas emissions have risen by about 1.5 percent each year on average. We’re already living through the implications of these changes, scientists say.

Fires sparked in the Western United States’ increasingly drying climate are burning more intensely and lasting longer. "The Colorado river, the main lifeblood of nearly 50 million people in the Southwest is declined by 20%. because of warming and climate change," says climate scientist Jonathan Overpeck of the University of Michigan.

Diseases like malaria are expanding into higher latitudes as temperatures increase. Hurricanes are becoming more frequent and severe, bashing into coastal communities. Warmer temperatures are even driving venomous scorpions into Brazil’s metropolitan cities.

Coral reefs, one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems and home to critical global fisheries that feed billions—yes, billions—of people, are struggling to adapt to rapidly warming and acidifying oceans. In a roughly 4 degree Celsius world, we could potentially see them dissolve.

Based on what we know from modeling and past history, Greenland’s ice sheet would start to melt—if it hadn't already—nearly irreversibly, atmospheric scientist Dennis Hartmann of the University of Washington tells Popular Mechanics. "That would mean something like seven meters (or 20 feet) of sea-level rise."

That’s on top of the already dramatic rates of sea level rise we’re seeing around the world, thanks to melting ice across poles and the thermal expansion of warming seawater. Rising seas are swamping subways, suburban neighborhoods and even cemeteries. (Thawing permafrost in northern latitudes threatens to unseat the dead, too.)

The U.S. military is already bracing for the impacts of climate change. A report commissioned by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and released late last month detailed how climate change may threaten the branch’s ability to operate in a warming world.

Despite the seemingly endless list of grim examples, Hartmann says there’s still reason to be hopeful. “There’s a long, long list of different strategies that could be used” to limit greenhouse gas emissions, he says. Capturing carbon dioxide as it’s released into the atmosphere as factories and tailpipes is one option, he notes.

Both Hartmann and Overpeck agree that shifting away from coal, which produces more CO2 per unit of energy than any other fossil fuel, could dramatically decrease the impacts of climate change. "There's no doubt in my mind that we must exit the fossil fuel era as quickly as possible," Overpeck tells Popular Mechanics. "By exiting the fossil fuel era, we'll be saving money."

The Fourth National Climate Assessment, released last year, projected that the U.S. economy will shrink by up to 10 percent if climate change continues unabated. “The cost will be enormous and will be felt by all communities in this country,” says Overpeck.

Have ambitions of someday owning one of Tesla’s new Cybertrucks? Well, that’s a step in the right direction. Hartmann says shifting our transportation systems from being reliant on fossil fuels to being reliant on the electrical grid is a great start. “That's definitely technologically feasible, and probably not that much more expensive if we worked at it." says Hartmann.

For Overpeck, a complete overhaul of the way we manage our carbon-gulping forests, farms, and fisheries would help do the trick. "We can take CO2 out of the air and sequester it in soils or mud on the bottom of the ocean."

"What's really needed in the next 10 years is an all out effort by the countries of the world—particularly the large emitters of greenhouse gases—to get out of fossil fuels and modify the way we manage our farms and our forests," says Overpeck. "We can really knock back these greenhouse gases in a meaningful way."

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