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Climate change uncertainty has been eclipsed by political uncertainty

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released its long awaited update report on the physical science of climate change. The news was not good, and it caused many media outlets to focus on frightening predictions and the potential for catastrophic tipping points to come.

Unfortunately, a week from now much of that alarm will have subsided as the news cycle moves on. But there’s a more important message in this report, one that is likely to be more durable than frightening tipping points: Scientific uncertainty has been eclipsed by political uncertainty.

Climate change is here and it’s going to get worse, the verdict is in. Any remaining shreds of uncertainty about anthropogenic climate change, however spurious or concocted, have been dispelled, even by the notoriously conservative IPCC. A glance at daily headlines further reinforces the fact that we’re in a period of crisis. Everyone but the most venal science denier gets that. How much worse it gets, however, depends entirely upon how quickly the world gets to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. While climate change is a scientific matter, climate action is a political one, and, if done right, can usher in dramatic social, economic and ecological improvements. So, there is some very good news to talk about.

But first, the bad news. The report was unequivocal — humans are causing rapid warming, it’s here now, and it’s dangerous. The report re-confirms that the relationship between human emissions and global warming is linear, in other words: As human emissions go up or down, so goes global warming.

We are already experiencing the extreme weather that was predicted years ago, and the damages are severe. The report documents how warming is fueling intense heat waves, amplifying droughts, and increasing the frequency and intensity of fires. It is turbocharging hurricanes and tropical cyclones, increasing extreme rainfall deluges, and driving coastal flooding. As the report describes, these conditions will grow worse as warming continues. Global water cycles will continue to become more variable and highly uncertain, featuring wild swings between very wet and very dry events.

The Arctic will go from a land of snow and ice to a region characterized by rain and summer heat waves. The permafrost that underlies nearly one-quarter of the northern hemisphere will continue to thaw, destabilizing infrastructure and releasing unknown quantities of greenhouse gasses trapped in frozen soils. There is a strong chance I may live to see an ice-free Arctic Ocean.

And then there is the inertia of these changes. The report assures us that “global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered.” This means surface temps will increase for the rest of my life no matter what we do. Other changes will carry on much further.

For example, the report states that the ongoing loss of ice sheets and glaciers, the acidification and deoxygenation of the oceans, and sea-level rise will be irreversible for centuries or even millennia. Sea-level rise in particular will continue for hundreds if not thousands of years in all emissions scenarios, and remain elevated for thousands of years after that.

So, for the Arctic and for many coastal regions, science tells us there is no going back to the way things were. But the good news is we can still stall the engine of warming that is driving all this calamity. There is a shrinking window of time in which ambitious climate action can still make a dramatic difference in what happens after mid-century.

That window is now. And the most important action is to stop burning fossil fuels. The report reminded us that stabilizing warming will require net-zero emissions — and the lion’s share of those emissions are coming from burning fossil fuels for energy, transportation and manufacturing. There are many other very important measures that must be taken at the same time — e.g., enhancing carbon sequestration in soils and forests, reducing methane emissions from landfills and livestock operations, changing the way we grow our food – but above all we must stop burning fossil fuels. Thankfully, the technology exists to get our energy from renewable sources.

Unfortunately, that’s where the political uncertainty takes center stage. Despite the clear scientific signal and readily available alternatives to fossil fuels, decision-makers are dithering, stuck in a parallel universe in which everything will be just fine if they can get a couple of legislative wins and some new donors.

President Biden appears eager to act on this issue but is hamstrung by senators who have forgotten the meaning of public service. A growing proportion of the public, led by a strong youth chorus, has become impatient with such negligence, and hopefully coming elections will reflect that. In the meantime, however, it is the responsibility of all of us to lean on decision-makers to demonstrate how they are part of the solution.

If leaning on your elected representative in Congress isn’t your cup of tea, focus on your mayor, city council, county council, school board or governor. If they are to be sustainable and widely accepted, solutions cannot just come from Capitol Hill. There must be a wave of grassroots innovation that reflects and serves the interests of communities and businesses, particularly the poorer communities and communities of color that are so often at the front line of climate impacts.

This wave of innovation should feature indigenous knowledge and emphasize equity and inclusion and should reflect the diversity of perspectives that characterize the modern world. This movement should not pretend that every action is without consequence but identify ways to soften the blow for the less fortunate. Climate action should utilize modern technologies to better understand and mitigate risk, as well as examine the ways that our social systems must evolve to support a more equitable and prosperous society.

Above all, however, success requires a rapid and just transition away from fossil fuels, so here in America there is no getting around the fact that we need the states and the federal government to act quickly. Nearly half of the states have committed to net-zero emissions by mid-century, if you live in one of the ones that has not, lean on the statehouse and the governor’s office and ask them why. Ask your Congressional delegation what they are doing to curtail fossil fuel subsidies, or how those enormous subsidies could be better utilized to soften the energy transition for frontline communities. Ask them what they will do in the next three months to widen the windows of opportunity at the crucial UN climate conference this winter in Glasgow. Ask them just how bad they are willing to let things get before they will put their job on the line for climate action.

The IPCC report, horrifying as it was, made it very clear that we can make a big difference with ambitious climate action right now. In the scheme of things, this is very good news. Let’s celebrate by applying unrelenting pressure on those who stand in the way.

Joel Clement is a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a senior fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Prior to joining UCS and the Belfer Center, Clement served as an executive for seven years at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Since resigning from public service in 2017, he has received multiple awards for ethics, courage, and his dedication to the role of science in public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @jclementmaine.

Tags climate action Climate change extreme heat extreme weather flooding Global warming IPCC Joe Biden Joel Clement sea-level rise

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