Global climate change is set to inflict “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” on people and the natural world unless carbon emissions are cut sharply and rapidly, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC ) in it’s most important assessment of global warming to date, published on November 9. The report also makes clear that carbon emissions, primarily from burning coal, oil and gas, are currently rising to record levels, not falling.
According to the stark report, climate change has already increased the risk of extreme weather, severe heatwaves, and drought and warns of worse to come—including food shortages and violent conflicts. The report also found, however, that ways to avoid dangerous global warming are both available and affordable.
The report comes at a critical time for international action on climate change, with the deadline for a global deal just over a year away.
The 21st Conference of Parties—the UN’s annual international climate change conference (COP 21) will be held in Paris in 2015 and promises to be a major event with speculation that a climate agreement will finally be adopted by major parties, unlike the disappointing meeting in Warsaw, Poland in 2013 and previously in Durbin, South Africa. While the 2014 COP 20 conference in Lima, Peru in early December is actually next in the annual series and a principle opportunity to negotiate before (presumeably) definitative commitments are made next year, more attention and publicity is being given to the Paris meeting. This past September, 120 national leaders also met at the UN Climate Summit in New York, while hundreds of thousands of marchers around the world demanded action. (See Polar Bear Behind Bars).
“Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in the message,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. “Leaders must act. Time is not on our side.” He said that quick, decisive action would build a better and sustainable future, while inaction would be costly. Ban further urged capital markets to: “… reduce your investments in the coal and fossil fuel-based economy and move to renewable energy.”
The IPCC report is the work of thousands of scientists and was agreed after negotiations by the world’s governments. It is the first IPCC report since 2007 to bring together all aspects of tackling climate change and, for the first time, states that: 1) it is economically affordable; 2) that carbon emissions will ultimately have to fall to zero; and 3) that global poverty can only be reduced by halting global warming.
The report states that global warming is “unequivocal”, that humanity’s role in causing it is “clear” and that many effects will last for hundreds to thousands of yearseven if the planet’s rising temperature is halted. The report concludes that the effects are already being felt—“In recent decades, changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans.”
Bill McKibben, founder of public climate action advocacy group 350.org, said: “For scientists, conservative by nature, to use ‘serious, pervasive, and irreversible’ to describe the effects of climate falls just short of announcing that climate change will produce a zombie apocalypse.” Breaking the power of the fossil fuel industry would not be easy, McKibben said. “But, thanks to the IPCC, no one will ever be able to say they weren’t warned.”
To add fuel to this climate debate, in a historic climate change deal, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced on November 12 that both countries will curb their greenhouse gas emissions over the next two decades.
Under the agreement, the United States would cut its 2005 level of carbon emissions by 26-28 percent before the year 2025. China would peak its carbon emissions by 2030 and will also aim to get 20% of its energy from zero-carbon emission sources by the same year.
The announcement marks the first time China has agreed to peak its carbon emissions, according to the White House. Xi is calling for “an energy revolution” that would include broad economic reforms addressing air pollution. According to President Obama, “As the world’s two largest economies, energy consumers and emitters of greenhouse gases, we have a special responsibility to lead the global effort against climate change.” These agreements, while historic, are not binding, however, and it will be up to the respective governments of the U.S. and China to follow through with legislation to make good on their leaders’ promises.
On a local level, a new program called CivicSpark has begun on the Northcoast. Offered through the Local Government Commission with support from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, CivicSpark will offer technical assistance and support to local governments to begin climate action planning efforts. Utilizing four Americorps workers (all college graduates with specialized skills) and supervised by local environmental activist Larry Goldberg, this program will be a three-year effort that will service local jurisdictions throughout the North State from the Bay Area north and Sacramento north. The CivicSpark team will help local governments, tribal governments, special districts and other local jurisdictions work on Climate Action planning, public education on climate change and other topics directly related to mitigation and adaptation strategies for climate change throughout Northern California.