“Human actions still have the potential to determine the future course of climate” but that action must happen now. That’s one of the takeaways from the sixth global assessment released Monday by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. By building on 30 years of past IPCC assessments, the project lays out one of the most comprehensive outlooks on the climate emergency.
The report forecasts an immediate future where the world will likely fail to hold global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) relative to preindustrial times—due to the continuing production of greenhouse gases. Under all five scenarios assessed by the panel, which differ by how much we rein in pollution, the globe will cross this warming benchmark in the 2030s.
But the report says recent progress has slowed the release of carbon into the atmosphere, and immediate measures could waylay the worst of future droughts, heat waves and rain-soaked floods. Dropping emissions to net-zero over the next 29 years could stabilize the warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius, the report predicts.
Dr. Robert E. Kopp is a co-author on the assessment and the Director of the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean & Atmospheric Sciences. He spoke with WNYC host Michael Hill about what New Yorkers and New Jerseyans could do at the local level to help curb emissions.
Their conversation is below. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Human activities are affecting extreme weather events like droughts or heavy downpours. How might those changes manifest in the tri-state area? What can we expect?
It’s a story that will be familiar to many of your listeners because the body of evidence has just kept growing.
What we expect to see with climate change and are seeing with climate change here in our region are more extreme and frequent heat waves.
Then there will be more rainfall overall and more intense rainfall. And of course, sea level rise will be leading to more frequent coastal flooding.
Warmer winters, too?
Yes, warmer winters and warmer summers. They’ll have more intense rainfall and heat.
Transportation is New Jersey’s biggest producer of greenhouse gases, according to the state’s emissions inventory. It accounts for twice as many emissions as the next sector, electricity generation. What needs to happen in New Jersey to curb emissions from transportation?
So I’m speaking now has an individual citizen and not as an author of this report, which addresses only the physical changes.
What’s clear is that in order to get our emissions to net zero, which the report tells us is necessary in order to stabilize global temperatures, we’re going to need to transition our transportation sector off of fossil fuels.
So initiatives like electrifying transport to the extent possible and making sure that the underlying electricity comes from fossil-free sources is going to be critical in order to achieve the goal of reaching net-zero global carbon dioxide emissions, without which we cannot stabilize the global climate.
Transportation is also a massive contributor across the Hudson River in New York, but residential and commercial buildings are big emitters as well. What can be done to limit carbon pollution created by our homes and our buildings?
Electrification is key. We know how to decarbonize the electric grid, and so the more end uses that we can transition off of fossil fuels, the more we can tap into an electricity grid that we can make zero carbon.
The report makes a special emphasis on methane. How has our understanding of this pollutant changed since the last assessment?
We now have a clear sense that in order to stabilize the climate we’re going to need to bring our methane emissions down.
One of the key reasons is that methane is a rapid-acting gas compared to carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere for centuries. It produces warming that lasts for centuries and millennia. Whereas reducing methane emissions gets short-term reductions in warming, which we will need.
That’s because we are also at the same time going to be reducing our particulate matter pollution, which we need to do for human health reasons. But as we reduce our particulate matter pollution that actually causes some additional near-term warming. Particulate pollution sort of acts as a shade, reflecting sunlight away.
So we need to be pairing these reductions for air quality reasons (for particulate matter) with reductions in methane emissions so that we don’t get the warming that particular matter has been hiding.
Are you optimistic about the future?
I’m relatively optimistic, but there are large challenges ahead of us. If we don’t stabilize the climate, for instance, we could be looking at sea level rise approaching seven feet by the end of the century and 16 feet by 2150 in the most extreme emission scenarios.
But if we stabilize our climate, we have the ability to push that off far into the future. We will hit seven feet of sea level rise eventually, but in a world with a stable climate (at two degrees of warming or below), that’s going to take many centuries and we can basically rule that out for the next century.
Even though there are changes that we’re already experiencing now and other changes that are locked in, we have the real power over the next few decades to control how fast and how large, the changes that we have to deal with and that our children and grandchildren have to deal with.
If the alarms and the warnings in this report, don’t capture the attention of world policymakers and decision-makers what will?
Speaking as an individual citizen. I think it’s the voices of individual citizens throughout the world.
People ask me, “what is the most important thing you can do to address climate change?” I would say it’s to talk about it with each other and to talk about it with our elected representatives.
Make sure that this topic is something that is on the agenda and if not near the top of the agenda. Because it’s only with societal action on these issues that we’re going to be able to get on that course for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in a stabilized climate that the report discusses.