Science

United Nations climate change report reveals how much can still be saved

Our world is undergoing a radical transformation.

This is the unmistakable message of the latest report on Monday from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Unchecked greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from burning fossil fuels, are warming the planet and altering the environment at a pace unmatched in recorded history.

But the report carries another message: Humanity can still determine how exactly our home is changed. We can continue along our current path, hurtling toward a world that is at least 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the one in which our civilization took shape, a world of chronic food shortages, escalating disasters and conditions too hot to survive .

Or humans can change course. It remains possible to eliminate planet-warming pollution in the next three decades and keep warming to roughly 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. This would avert the worst consequences of climate change and preserve a chance for people to adapt to the impacts we can’t avoid.

Drawing on the IPCC findings and analysis from outside experts, The Washington Post envisioned how three locations around the globe could be transformed depending on humanity’s emissions trajectory over the next 80 years. These postcards from Earth’s possible futures show what the world stands to lose as temperatures tick upward. They also reveal how much can still be saved.

Depending on how much humans continue to emit, climate change is projected to put between 9 and 13 percent of species worldwide at high risk of extinction. Wildfire frequency could increase in up to two-thirds of Earth’s land area. And more than 30 percent of terrestrial ecosystems could undergo major climatic shifts.

To Sarah Stock, a National Park Service wildlife ecologist, confronting this crisis means embracing change. “Biologists used to manage species and their habitats by mimicking past conditions, and that strategy just isn’t an option any more,” she said.

Counterintuitively, fire is one of her greatest tools for protecting the park’s imperiled ecosystems. Like much of the American West, Yosemite’s forests evolved to endure periodic blazes, which cleared clutter from the understory and opened up space for new trees to grow. Misguided federal policies suppressed natural fires for a century, meaning the hotter and third West also has more fuel to burn.

But by setting controlled low-intensity fires within the park, Stock and her colleagues are recreating the natural “fire regime” by enhancing the overall resilience of the landscape. The strategy has already borne fruit, lessening the destruction from a wildfire that burned through an important owl habitat in 2013. The following year, the owls returned, making their nests in the patchwork of forest that survived.

“We can’t just set aside these places and expect them to be insulated from global changes,” Stock said. “But we can buffer our habitats, our forests, our meadows, from the effects.” When it is given the chance, she added, “I’ve gotten some glimpses of how resilient nature can be.”

Nigerian activist Philip Jakpor doesn’t need to read the IPCC report to know that climate change will be catastrophic for his home. As director of programs for the social justice nonprofit Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa, he has borne witness as coastlines disappear and farmland turns to desert. He has seen floodwaters displace millions of his countrymen and watched rotting fish wash up by the thousands along polluted coasts.

“People live in fear, real fear,” said Jakpor, who is also a volunteer with the advocacy group Environmental Rights Action. “There is going to be a lot of conflict. There is going to be hunger. You will have millions of people scrambling over a few areas of arable land.”

Curbing carbon pollution would preserve a vital chance for vulnerable people to cope. Africa will need to spend five to 20 times as much money adapting to 4 degrees Celsius of warming, compared to the cost of coping with warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Yet African nations contribute no more than 3 percent of the world’s annual warming emissions. Even Nigeria, a major oil and gas producer, doesn’t have the economic clout to shift Earth’s warming course or adapt to change on its own. The future of Lagos depends in part on wealthy countries and large corporations shifting away from fossil fuels and providing financial support to help low-income countries become safe and sustainable, Jakpor said.

Despite a flurry of pledges to reduce emissions to “net zero” by the middle of the century, research shows that the world’s biggest emitters have not taken the near-term steps needed to secure a livable planet. The IPCC report makes clear that achieving the Paris climate agreement goals will require a major transformation of the global economy, not over the course of decades, but in the next few years.

“We are not waiting for the year 2100. We are not waiting for the year 2050,” Jakpor said. “We believe the time for action should be now.”

Some approaches are more extensive and expensive than others. Some are meant to protect vulnerable coastlines from rising seas, while others are meant to move key infrastructure out of harm’s way. Leaders in the Marshall Islands are looking at a broad range of measures as part of a national adaptation plan. “We call it our ‘national survival plan,'” said Tina Stege, the Marshall Islands climate envoy.

In addition to rising seas, which are the most urgent threat facing her nation, Stege said intensifying rainstorms, as well as extended drought, have wreaked havoc for farmers in the island nation. Saltwater intrusion threatens drinking water sources. The warming climate has brought the threat of increased disease outbreaks such as dengue.

“That’s the thing about climate change. It’s not just one thing. It’s everything together,” she said. “It’s an onslaught of different things.”

Like other island nations that have insisted warming beyond 1.5 Celsius threatens their very existence, the Marshall Islands faces potentially agonizing changes ahead.

“We’re talking about how we are going to survive. We are accepting that what we look like in 50 years is different than what we look like now, under any scenario,” Stege said. “We will have to transform. That’s a really tough conversation.”

But standing on the front lines of climate change, she insisted, the Marshallese people have never wavered in their resilience.

“What we’ve said as a community and a nation is we are committed to being there. We are not accepting a future in which we don’t exist.”

About this story

Warming scenarios are based on projections in the Sixth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the USAID climate risk profile for West Africa, “Feasibility Assessment of Climate Change Adaptation Options Across Africa” in the journal Environmental Research Letters, and “Adapting to Sea Level Rise in Marshall Islands,” a joint report from the Marshall Islands government and the World Bank.

“High emissions scenarios” illustrate climate impacts that are projected to occur at or above 2.5 degrees Celsius of warming above the preindustrial average. “Low emissions scenarios” describe impacts that are projected at 1.5 degrees Celsius, the most ambitious goal of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

This story also draws on interviews with the following scientific experts: Patrick Gonzalez, climate change scientist at the University of California, Berkeley; Sarah Stock, wildlife ecologist for the National Park Service; Mark Rose, Sierra Nevada Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association; Portia Adade Williams, research scientist with the Science and Technology Policy Research Institute of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Accra, Ghana; Rachel Bezner Kerr, development sociologist at Cornell University and Artessa Saldivar-Sali, senior municipal engineer at the World Bank.

Editing by Dayana Sarkisova and Monica Ulmanu.

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