There's a Silver Lining to the U.N.'s Final Warning on Climate Change

If you want to celebrate a great human accomplishment, forget the moon landing or Purple Rain. Celebrate this. For the last 34 years, tens of thousands of scientists around the world have labored to produce a report that tries to quantify just how fucked life on Earth really is due to our hellbent consumption of fossil fuels. The report, which is thousands of pages long and is revised and expanded every six years or so, is arguably the most important scientific document that human beings have ever produced. It not only attempts to synthesize the complex interplay of chemistry, physics, and biology in our rapidly warming world, but it also raises the question of whether we humans are rational creatures that will take action to avoid our own doom, and the doom of much we know and love, or we are just frogs sitting in the proverbial pot as the water boils and we cook ourselves to death. 

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The group of scientists and policy experts behind the report are part of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was formed in 1988 to help policy-makers understand and take action on climate risk. Every few years the IPCC releases a new assessment, which consists of several reports prepared by three working groups. Working Group I focuses on the scientific evidence for climate change; Working Group II on the impacts, adaptation, and vulnerabilities; and Working Group III on mitigation. The latest version of the report, known as the Sixth Assessment, has been released in three parts over the last few months; the mitigation report, or WG3 report, was released last week. Two hundred and seventy authors from 67 countries contributed to the 2,913 page-long report.  

The WG3 report may be the most important of the three reports, if only because it handicaps various strategies to address the climate crisis. Is advanced nuclear power critical to limiting warming to 2 C? Can carbon dioxide removal technology scale up fast enough and cheap enough to make a difference? Climate-wise, is recycling more effort than it’s worth? If there is a single message in the WG3 report, Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M, told me, it is this: “Things are bad, we can fix this, but the window is closing.” 

Unfortunately, that has been the message in more or less every version of this report for the last 20 years and nobody has paid much attention to it. But what’s different this time is that the urgency is palpable. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the report revealed “a litany of broken climate promises” by governments and corporations who put the power and influence of fossil fuels above the welfare of the planet: “It is a file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track toward an unlivable world.”

Let me repeat that last phrase, just in case you glossed over it: firmly on track toward an unlivable world. 

What’s also different this time is that the report lands in a world that is not exactly, shall we say, science-friendly. We live in a mud-bog of anti-vaxxers, QAnon, the Big Lie, and Fox News propaganda. The report also arrives in the middle of a barbaric war in Ukraine, where atrocities committed by Russian soldiers dominate the news, making long-term thinking about the fragility of the Earth’s climate feel like a luxury some of us can’t afford. 

I’m not going to summarize the details of the WG3 report, beyond saying that it makes the case if we have any attachment at all to the wonders of the world we live in, or give a damn about the poor and vulnerable who will suffer most in a rapidly warming world, we need to get off fossil fuels now. It also argues, importantly, that doing so would be surprisingly cheap, given the radical decline in the cost of renewable energy. Here’s an overview that hits all the main points. If you want to go deeper, I highly recommend this in-depth Q & A at CarbonBrief. Or you can dive right into the report itself. 

Here’s a few thoughts about the report in the larger context of the climate fight: 

1. Limiting warming to 1.5 C is a lost cause

How much warming is too much? Where is the threshold when we slip over to “dangerous” climate change? There is no simple answer to that. And the answer is different if you are living on the coast in Bangladesh than in a high-rise in Manhattan. But during the 2015 climate negotiations in Paris, an “aspirational” goal of limiting warming to 1.5 C emerged. The goal was based more on politics than science, and required a deep faith that world leaders would pass laws to shut down coal plants and outlaw internal combustion engines. From the moment it was first announced, many were skeptical that the 1.5 C target was anything more than a feel-good fantasy. As one observer quipped to me during the Paris climate talks, “They may as well agree that all fairies shall ride unicorns too.”

Alas, thanks largely to the failure to make any deep cuts in CO2 pollution in the seven years since Paris, the WG3 report basically declares that dream dead. “There is not yet so much greenhouse-gas pollution in the atmosphere that avoiding 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming has become impossible, on paper,” writes The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer. “But it is now, in practice, probably impossible to achieve.”

Was hyping the 1.5 C goal a mistake? On one hand, having an aggressive temperature target unleashed a wave of activism that seeks to hold political leaders accountable (including Greta Thunberg, who regularly cites the 1.5 C target as evidence of the failure of politicians and business leaders to take the climate crisis seriously). It also inspired a lot of important science about the sensitivity of the Earth’s climate to 1.5 C of warming, as well as the inequities that even a modest temperature increase would create.

On the other hand, brashly setting an aggressive target like 1.5 C plays into the hands of doomers, who will point to the failure to achieve it as an excuse for apathy and binge-drinking.

2. The media matters more than ever

No regular humans read IPCC reports. Or at least no regular humans who aren’t already convinced that the climate crisis is an emergency. For one thing, they’re mind-numbingly long (even the Summary for Policymakers is 64 pages). For another, they’re full of arcane abbreviations about pathways and scenarios and graphs that will have no meaning to anyone who doesn’t have a graduate degree in the Geophysics of Civilizational Collapse.

That’s why the journalists who can translate the report into plain language are so important — like Amy Westervelt, who is breaking down the report, chapter by chapter, and translating it into humanspeak. explaining why we don’t have to burn more fossil fuels to get the benefits that burning fossil fuels provide:

“Remember when car-sharing services first appeared in the U.S. and for a few years there people were like holy shit I don’t actually need to own a whole car to myself, I just need to borrow a car occasionally? Or way before that when offices were like wait what we can just have a copier on loan? Magic! This is like that but for the whole economy. It upends a deeply held belief (yeah I said it, belief) in economics that demand will increase with economic growth.”  

In recent years, Big Media has gotten better at climate coverage.  But this time around, the IPCC WG3 was, at best, a one-day story, in part because the report landed in the middle of a war (in ratings-land, bombs and evil dictators always beat fossil fuel addiction and rising seas). One exception: MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan opened his show with a cutting monologue about the media’s failure to give the story of a planetary meltdown bigger play than, say, Will Smith’s slap at the Academy Awards.

3. It’s all about politics and power now

As climate scientist Andrew Dessler puts it: “Climate change is not a scientific or technical problem — it’s a political problem.” That is not to say that understanding the physical mechanisms at work in the collapse of Antarctica aren’t important to the lives of millions of people. But it’s one thing to quantify the risk of collapse. It’s another thing to inspire or motivate or educate or push people to do something about it.   

“I see the climate challenge as akin to the tobacco debates,” says atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira, senior scientist for Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy and former punk band guitarist. “For a long time, we knew that tobacco was killing people, but the tobacco industry had (and continues to have) a lot of power. But science on its own would not have effected policy change.”

Only advocacy, backed by science, could achieve that, Caldeira says. “Back in the 80s, we believed in the information deficit model of social change, and that if we could only get the information to policymakers they would do the right thing. And now we see that really it’s not about information deficit, it’s about power relations, and people wanting to keep economic and political power.”

And addressing that is a job that goes well beyond the purview of any IPCC report. It’s requires a journey into dark money, corruption, and engines of democracy itself.

4. Climate reports are one thing. The actual world we live in is another

The most glaring omission from the WG3 report is the name “Vladimir Putin.” Of course, there is no way the authors of the report could have predicted that Putin would invade Ukraine at the same moment the report was released, but it does underscore the radical uncertainty of the future we face. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will likely have a far bigger impact on the trajectory of climate over the next decade or so than the price of solar panels. Will Putin’s brutality accelerate the move off fossil fuels — or pull us in deeper? Will Russia’s war crimes inspire moral revulsion against fossil fuel thugs or give them more power? None of this is clear, and probably won’t be for a while. President Biden signed an executive order that banned importing Russian oil, gas, and coal, and Congress followed up with legislation, which will make it law. But given that only about eight percent of the oil the U.S. imports comes from Russia, that’s hardly a revolutionary move. In the EU, which is far more dependent on Russian fossil fuels, leaders are struggling to slash imports without wrecking their economies. Meanwhile, every drop of oil, every ton of coal and every cubic foot of gas we burn pushes us deeper into climate chaos. It’s not a happy picture. If nothing else, the latest IPCC report is evidence that we have all the tools and all the knowledge we need to save ourselves and build a better world, if we choose to. That’s the best news in this report: The future may be uncertain, but it’s in our hands.

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