What is the IPCC?

It’s been two weeks since the final instalment of the IPCC’s 6th Assessment was released and I’m sure that at this point you have all seen news headlines about it (see examples from BBC, CTV, Forbes, and The Narwhal). But what exactly is the IPCC and why should we care about their reports?

IPCC stands for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It’s a United Nations organization made up of 195 governments with thousands of scientists that volunteer their time to contribute to the reports. The reports are a review of all the most recent peer-reviewed scientific literature on climate change – this literature covers everything from the drivers of climate change, to its impacts, to mitigation techniques. In other words, these experts are not conducting new research for the reports, but rather assessing and summarizing the science that has already been published. Since the experts volunteer their time and aren’t conducting the research themselves, and the reports go through an extensive and transparent review, you can be sure that the reports are unbiased and dependable sources of information on the topic of climate change. In short, they are incredibly succinct reviews of literally everything we know to be true about human-caused climate change.

The reports are separated into three instalments each put together by a separate Working Group. The first, Working Group I, examines the science related to how our climate is actually changing – they review what is causing it. The second, Working Group II, investigates how climate change is impacting our world – they review the impacts of it on both our society and the natural world. Finally, Working Group III examines climate change mitigation techniques – they attempt to answer, what can we do about it?

The contribution of Working Group I was released at the end of 2021. Simply put, it reaffirms the understanding that climate change is human caused, that greenhouse gas levels in our atmosphere are incredibly high (and continue to rise), and that this has caused unprecedented warming of Earth’s atmosphere, surface, and oceans. It also illustrates different trajectories based on various climate emissions scenarios – in other words, the authors illustrate how warm the Earth could get depending on how much greenhouse gas we continue to emit into the atmosphere.

Figure from the IPCC Working Group I Summary for Policymakers. The graph on the left (a) illustrates both the observed warming in global surface temperatures from 1850-2020, as well as reconstructed surface temperatures from 1-2000. Reconstructions are created using paleoclimate data (e.g., ice and soil cores, tree rings, etc.). The graph on the right (b) illustrates the observed surface temperature in black as well as two different simulated surface temperatures. In blue is the surface temperature we would expecte based on natural factors only. The brown is what we expect if we added human-caused climate change. Because the brown and black match up we know that changes in surface temperatures are human caused.

Working Group II released their report earlier this year. In it, the authors describe the extent of damage caused to nature and our society due to climate change and the extreme weather and natural disaster events that accompany it. In my opinion, one of the most important pieces of this report illustrates that the most vulnerable people and ecosystems are disproportionately affected – in other words, the people, plants, and animals that are most at-risk, regardless of climate change, are being affected by it the most. Likewise, those of us that are naturally more resilient do not bear the brunt of the impacts. The take away here is that even though you may not notice the impacts of climate change in your life does not mean that there are not people and species already suffering from its consequences. Finally, the authors describe the potential impacts, some of them irreversible, that may occur in the future if greenhouse gas emissions are not immediately curbed and urge that protecting our biodiversity now can help to increase climate resilience in these future scenarios.

Figures from IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report.

But, what’s in the latest instalment? The work of Working Group III allows us to understand where the emissions are coming from, by sector, as well as which nations are contributing the most to climate change and which are actively working towards reducing their impact. For example, here in North America, our historical (1850-present) cumulative carbon dioxide emissions are higher than any other region in the world. Their report also illustrates that although policies addressing mitigation have increased world-wide, they are not sufficient to keep warming below 1.5°C. In fact, to stay below this threshold, our greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025 at the very latest. This means that we need additional, stricter sector-wide policies put in place immediately to ensure that our emissions do not continue to rise.

So, what can we do about it? The most important message of this latest instalment is that we already have everything we need to combat climate change. We just have to actually do it. The report illustrates that on an individual level, a shift to sustainable (plant-based) diets is one of the best things we can do to decrease our own greenhouse gas emissions. On a societal scale, we need a massive transition to low-emission energy sources and green tech, combined with a “substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use”. Sustainable technological advances have become more cost-effective, making way for the possibility of widespread adoption of various climate-friendly tech. For example, in terms of transport, the report illustrates that electric vehicles not only “offer the largest decarbonisation potential” but the transition to them will assist with other environmental disasters, such as a reduction in air pollution. Mostly, we need international, cooperative climate governance put in place that forces industry and individuals to adopt these new technologies while quickly lowering greenhouse gas emissions. The authors illustrate that in order for this to work effectively, governments must work together “with civil society actors, political actors, businesses, youth, labour, media, Indigenous Peoples and local communities”. And for those of you worried about economic fallout, this instalment explains that the economic benefit of mitigating climate change will outweigh the cost of not doing anything.

The overall message of the 6th Assessment Report is one of urgency, but equally, of hope. We have everything we need to combat climate change, aside from the political willpower to make the necessary changes. This is why voting for parties that have clear climate change platforms is the single most important thing that we, as individuals, can each do to help mitigate it.

Figure title: A Borrowed Planet – Inherited from our Ancestors. IPCC’s cover photo for the 6th Assessment Report. Original artwork by Alisa Singer.

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