COP26: “A Code Red on Climate”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently concluded that “greenhouse gas emissions are choking our planet & placing billions of people in danger”. Learn what this means for our planet, and the recommendations for policy-makers at the upcoming COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

You’re sitting at your kitchen table one Sunday morning. You hear distant shouting, then glance at a team of firefighters scrambling to your front door. With an exasperated knock, they scream, “Evacuate now! Your house is about to catch on fire!”

You suddenly notice a hint of smoke in the air. You survey the firefighter’s soot-covered suits – evidence they’ve seen things you haven’t.

What do you do? If you’re anything like me, you’d heed their warning and get the heck out of the neighborhood!

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, Panel) report, released August 2021, is the closest you’ll ever find the international scientific community screaming their warnings door-to-door. So what exactly is the IPCC, and why should you care?

IPCC Warning Cries

The UN created the IPCC in 1988 in partnership with the International Council of Scientific Unions, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The Panel exists to provide recommendations for action based on current climate research.

The IPCC isn’t a Chicken Little story or a group of far-wing treehuggers warning of a vague impending doom. The Panel has conducted six reports since its inception. Over 234 scientists from 66 countries authored the 6th and latest report in 2021. They note that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years.

Whoa! That’s a big statement, Joey!

Irrefutable Evidence

We humans are funny creatures. Our 50,000 years of evolutionary knowledge taught us to expect today and tomorrow to reflect the “way it was has been”. For example, children born 800 years ago could more or less expect to inherit and experience the same world their parents or grandparents did. Gradual environmental changes were imperceptible throughout a few human lifetimes. Scientific consensus tells us that’s no longer the case.

The IPCC report warns emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are responsible for approximately 1.1°C of warming between 1850-1900. Averaged over the next 20 years, global temperatures will likely reach or exceed 1.5°C of heating.

The report is a five-alarm wake-up call. Or as UN Secretary-General António Guterres calls it, “a code red for humanity. The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable”. “We must act decisively now, to keep 1.5 [degrees C] alive. We are already at 1.2 degrees [C] and rising.”

As a result, IPCC experts warn that extreme sea-level events that previously occurred once in 100 years could happen every year by the end of this century.

Missing the Target

It’s especially challenging to shock our world to action when society’s “watchdogs” fall asleep in the watchtower.

An August 2021 report from Media Matters found morning and nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS’ nightly news show NewsHour aired a combined 25 segments on various extreme weather events the week following the IPCC report, August 11-18, 2021. Only five of these, or 20%, mentioned climate change. Only two of them, 8%, referenced the new IPCC report.

A five-alarm fire with only one alarm. What’s there to do?

We Did Start the Fire

What if we could prevent the worst effects of catastrophic global warming? IPCC experts tell us there is still hope to change course in time if we hurry.

Instead of reacting to an urgent emergency 20 years from now, we can practice proactivity based on the signals we see today.

“Stabilizing the climate will require strong, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and reaching net-zero CO2 emissions. Limiting other greenhouse gases and air pollutants, especially methane, could have benefits both for health and the climate,” adds IPCC Working Group Co-Chair Panmao Zhai.

The report concludes that “strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases, could help global temperatures stabilize in 20 to 30 years.”

To get there, rapid global decarbonization must start now. That’s exactly why the UN created the COP.

COPing with Climate Change

The UN created the annual “Conference of Parties” at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Following the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, the COP mission shifted focus to support the goals set out in the Accord – most notably the aim of limiting global warming to “significantly below 2 degrees C” and if possible, to “pursue efforts to cap warming at 1.5 degrees C” compared to preindustrial levels.

COP26 will convene for two weeks in Glasgow beginning on October 31st, 2021. Organizers expect thousands of leaders from over 200 countries to attend. This year’s focus spotlights five key areas to address the urgent need for global decarbonization:

  1. The energy transition (to renewables)
  2. The shift to zero-carbon transport (think electric vehicles)
  3. Adaptation and resilience
  4. Nature and safeguarding of ecosystems
  5. Unleashing green finance

Planet Prescription

The IPCC leaves COP26 participants and policy-makers with some eye-catching science-based directives they say will limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, including:

  • No new coal plants built after 2021
  • OECD countries must phase out existing coal by 2030, with all others following suit by 2040
  • End all new fossil fuel exploration and production, and shift fossil fuel subsidies into renewable energy
  • By 2030, solar and wind capacity should quadruple and renewable energy investments should triple to maintain a net-zero trajectory by mid-century
  • Meet the decade-old promise to mobilize $100 billion annually to support mitigation and adaptation in developing countries

The EU recently published its ‘Fit for 55’ package of energy and climate laws aimed at reaching the EU’s 2030 goal of cutting emissions by 55% (compared to 1990 levels) and putting it on track to hit net zero by 2050.

Yes, the remedy is painful and expensive. But it pales in comparison to the cost of doing nothing.

The Time to Act

Regardless of the COP outcome, you can make a difference in your community today. In line with scientific consensus, you can support public policy promoting the rapid deployment of renewable energy, electric vehicles adoption, protection for our natural environment, and the development of financial tools that empower green investments.

The alarm bells are blaring. Unfortunately, we don’t have another neighborhood to run towards. Are we wise enough to listen to the screaming scientists, frantic firemen, or the silent voices of future generations? We have a chance to act. What legacy will COP26 leave our world?

About the Author

Alex Kaufman is a science communicator, clean energy specialist, sustainability nerd, professional engineer, travel enthusiast, and resident of San Diego, California. When not helping clients, you can usually find him cycling, hiking, reading, spending time with loved ones, or planning the next big adventure. He is open to speaking engagements. Contact him at alex@alexkaufmanpe.com.

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