The era of 'rapid' climate change has begun

Here's what the new IPCC report says, and what it doesn't, about the most important moment of our lives.

Today’s original art for The Phoenix is by Laila Arêde.

We are in a climate emergency. And you were born at just the right moment to help change everything.

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First, a content warning, and a personal request:

This is a difficult report to read. Chances are, you’ll learn new truths about the climate emergency that will be terrifying in a way you haven't yet felt. That’s what happened to me, at least.

But like my favorite climate essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar wrote, Home is Always Worth It.

You get to cry. You get to grieve. You get to be angry. You get to take all the time you need to do these things. You get to ask for help. But you don't get to give up. I’m asking you not to give up.

We are learning from each other about how to struggle for systemic change on an impossible-but-necessary scale every day. People have been doing this same thing for hundreds of years, all over the world, in every country. What we're doing now isn't new.

There is so much worth saving. There is so much more to grow into that we can't even imagine yet. And there always will be.

You're not alone. You're right where you need to be. And we're doing this work together.


What the report says

It’s warming ‘almost everywhere’.

It’s warming ‘rapidly’.

It’s been a long time since our planet has been this warm.

It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Fixing it ‘requires’ net zero carbon globally as soon as possible.


Here’s the links to read the new IPCC report yourself:

The report’s press release.

A video recording of today’s press conference, with Q&A.

The report itself.

For the first time, the IPCC has also published an Interactive Atlas.


This report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the new gold-standard update to climate science, its first in eight years. And these statements, taken together, are the clearest statement of how dire the climate emergency has become, and the clearest call to action we’ve ever received on the existential crisis of our time.

Every single sentence of the summary report has been unanimously approved by representatives from every country on Earth. That makes this report a political document, one of the most important in history. It’s meant to directly inform negotiations about how to solve the climate emergency.

The report’s main takeaway, put in a single sentence directly quoted from the report’s press release: “Unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.”

That means "immediate, rapid, large-scale" change is what we MUST demand — there's a vastly limited future for all of us if it doesn't happen right away.

The most striking part of the report to me is its of use the word "rapid" prominently, which to me is a major change from past reports.

The era of rapid climate change has begun. Both a rapid escalation of consequences, and a rapid escalation of solutions. Time has run out for anything but radical change.

To me, the report is equal parts depressing and galvanizing.

It will take several years, even in the best possible scenario, to see the positive effects of rapidly reductions in emissions. But that's not so different from every other worthwhile investment we make — from going to school, to going to therapy, to building bike lanes, to forming communities of mutual aid. Every worthwhile thing takes time. And, if we believe this report, the next 20-30 years is the most important time of our whole lives.


Some highlights, and my thoughts:

Climate change is now rapid

The top two conclusions of the report itself:

"It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.”

The scale of recent changes across the climate system as a whole and the present state of many aspects of the climate system are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years."

This news, to me, is the gut punch. The use of the word “rapid” here underlines that we’ve entered a new phase of the climate emergency.

The report breaks down just how unusual recent warming is, now on par with temperatures 125,000 years ago, and CO2 and ocean acidity surpassing anything seen in at least 2 million years. The report also says that human activities have caused essentially all of this warming: 1.07°C out of 1.09°C of total warming.

For the first time, the report describes an observed increase in extreme events in hurricanes. Previously, these changes had been too uncertain to gain international consensus. Extreme weather is now measurably getting worse on every part of every continent except southern South America, where data was too sparse.

It is likely that the global proportion of major (Category 3–5) tropical cyclone occurrence has increased over the last four decades.

Human influence has likely increased the chance of compound extreme events since the 1950s. This includes increases in the frequency of concurrent heatwaves and droughts on the global scale (high confidence); fire weather in some regions of all inhabited continents (medium confidence); and compound flooding in some locations (medium confidence).

It’s going to keep getting worse

Under every future scenario, the world will keep getting warmer until at least 2050, even under rapid emissions reductions. So we have no choice at this point but to prepare for these changes AND try to stop them from getting even worse at the same time.

This finding is due to the fact that we’ve emitted a lot more carbon since the last report came out in 2013, and studies of the distant past climates have also improved — giving us a better baseline for what happens when the planet is put under extreme stress.

There’s a bit of good news here when it comes to the “climate sensitivity” (the amount the world is likely to warm if CO2 doubles. The worst of the worst-case scenarios have become less likely, but the best case scenarios have also gotten worse. In the new report, the "best estimate is 3°C with a likely range of 2.5°C to 4°C (high confidence), compared to 1.5°C to 4.5°C in [the last report]."

And the worst bad news is that we’re emitting CO2 so fast that the planet hasn’t had time to catch up. The report describes these changes as “irreversible” on human timescales.

Buried in the report’s FAQ is a “stark reminder” that the climate change we’re already seeing is just a fraction of what we’ve already locked in.

Another section in the FAQ was really helpful to understand how this will play out in terms of extreme weather:

The ocean and ice sheets is the place on Earth most at risk of irreversible change.

Many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level.

Based on multiple lines of evidence, upper ocean stratification (virtually certain), ocean acidification (virtually certain) and ocean deoxygenation (high confidence) will continue to increase in the 21st century, at rates dependent on future emissions. Changes are irreversible on centennial to millennial time scales in global ocean temperature (very high confidence), deep ocean acidification (very high confidence) and deoxygenation (medium confidence).

Mountain and polar glaciers are committed to continue melting for decades or centuries (very high confidence). Loss of permafrost carbon following permafrost thaw is irreversible at centennial timescales (high confidence). Continued ice loss over the 21st century is virtually certain for the Greenland Ice Sheet and likely for the Antarctic Ice Sheet. There is high confidence that total ice loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet will increase with cumulative emissions. There is limited evidence for low-likelihood, high-impact outcomes (resulting from ice sheet instability processes characterized by deep uncertainty and in some cases involving tipping points) that would strongly increase ice loss from the Antarctic Ice Sheet for centuries under high GHG emissions scenarios.

And these extremes could also get really really bad if we get unlucky.

Low-likelihood outcomes, such as ice sheet collapse, abrupt ocean circulation changes, some compound extreme events and warming substantially larger than the assessed very likely range of future warming cannot be ruled out and are part of risk assessment.

Global mean sea level rise above the likely range – approaching 2 m by 2100 and 5 m by 2150 under a very high GHG emissions scenario (SSP5-8.5) (low confidence) – cannot be ruled out due to deep uncertainty in ice sheet processes.

Abrupt responses and tipping points of the climate system, such as strongly increased Antarctic ice sheet melt and forest dieback, cannot be ruled out (high confidence).

In terms of the line-in-the-sand 1.5°C warming limit that formed the basis of the Paris Agreement in 2015, this report provides a major update. Under every future emissions scenario, we’re now “more likely than not” to at least briefly exceed 1.5°C sometime between now and mid-century, even with rapid emissions reductions. The best hope here is that we get lucky and climate sensitivity is at the low end of the likely range.

Fixing it ‘requires’ net zero carbon globally as soon as possible

Achieving global net zero CO2 emissions is a requirement for stabilizing CO2-induced global surface temperature increase, with anthropogenic CO2 emissions balanced by anthropogenic removals of CO2.

Using the word “requirement” here is a major step. What this report says, without explicitly saying it, is that there is no future left for fossil fuels. Every ton of CO2 warms the planet. And we can’t afford to warm the planet anymore, we’re already at the breaking point.

From a physical science perspective, limiting human-induced global warming to a specific level requires limiting cumulative CO2 emissions, reaching at least net zero CO2 emissions, along with strong reductions in other greenhouse gas emissions. Strong, rapid and sustained reductions in CH4 emissions would also limit the warming effect resulting from declining aerosol pollution and would improve air quality.

This Report reaffirms with high confidence the AR5 finding that there is a near-linear relationship between cumulative anthropogenic CO2 emissions and the global warming they cause.


What the report doesn’t say

There’s no explicit mention of fossil fuels in the report at all. No oil. No gas. No coal.

That’s an intentional decision. Every single line of the report was unanimously approved by governments, and there are some governments, of course, that still make a lot of money from fossil fuels.

Climate change isn’t just something that’s happening, it’s being done to us.

The role of the IPCC is to describe the problem. It’s up to us — literally you and me — to call out the people who created the climate emergency and demand solutions that work for everyone.

Above all, that means ending the era of fossil fuels, and the influence of extractive capitalism in every aspect of society.

That’s possible more quickly than we think. There’s evidence that a small group of very committed people — as small as 3.5% — can make revolutionary changes.

Right now, leaders around the world are considering new restrictions on the fossil fuel economy and new incentives for the zero carbon circular economy that will replace it. In the US, President Biden and Congress *right now* have the best shot of passing major climate legislation of any time in the past decade.

We need bold climate action at every single level of society, from neighborhoods to nations. The Green New Deal is a framework for simultaneously adapting to the climate change that’s already locked in and preventing it from getting worse, and building a thriving society in the process.

In November, leaders from every country in the world will meet in Glasgow, Scotland at COP26 to talk about this report and how to work together. It’ll be a huge moment in history.

From now, until then, and beyond, we have to take to the streets to demand a planet where everyone can thrive.


Resources for the hours and days ahead

One of my big climate anxiety coping strategies of the past decade has been to focus on the possible actions I can take. Yes, this report is bad, but you don't have to bear the whole thing yourself. And this report says exactly what we need to do. Yes, it's going to be hard, but you don't have to solve the whole thing yourself.

All this week, I’ll be hosting live chats on Twitter Spaces to talk about the IPCC report. I’d love for you to join me. Follow @currently for invites & times, and subscribe to Currently to help support a weather service built for the climate emergency.

Here’s a tentative schedule:

Monday: The science

Tuesday: Eco-anxiety

Wednesday: Social movements & rapid change

Thursday: Weather, climate & justice

Friday: IPCC AMA

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