Good news everyone, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released their latest report on the state of the planet. Let’s have a look, shall we?
Excuse me, I have an important meeting to get to. In my bed. Wearing a bear onesie. And snuggling my dog.
OK, so yes, the news is bad. But here’s the thing: it’s not new news. This is old news. The IPCC report isn’t a new study, it’s like a meta-analysis — every piece of data in it was already peer-reviewed and published in a scientific journal. 234 scientists have pored over more than 14,000 studies to collate everything into one understandable story for both policymakers and you, the general public.
And considering the fact that everything has already been published, and it’s basically my job to pay attention to the current science as it happens, why do I find this so terribly depressing? Let me tell you: there are actually multiple complicated layers of depression.
First, there’s just the upsetting fact of seeing it laid plain in front of my eyes. We can no longer say that 97, 98, 99% of scientists agree that humans are causing global warming. It’s not a hypothesis. It’s a fact: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.“ The negative consequences of human action are observable in literally every inhabited region across the globe. Even if we completely stopped producing any new emissions right now, these negative consequences would continue throughout the rest of the 21st century. But because we won’t stop producing emissions right now, these negative consequences “are irreversible for centuries to millennia.” And if we don’t significantly reduce our emissions as soon as possible, we will trigger cascading issues in which, for instance, the oceans and trees no longer *help* us but actively hurt us, like you know when all the trees catch on fire and fill the air with smoke.
So yeah, seeing all that laid out so bare is a little depressing.
It’s also depressing because it exactly mirrors what we just went through in the past year and a half with COVID-19. Immediate and drastic action was needed and we didn’t do it. As of today, 4.3 million people are dead and we can never, ever bring them back. Those deaths are irreversible for them and for their families who mourn them, and many more people survived but are left with debilitating illnesses we also can’t reverse. But, if we act now we can make the future LESS AWFUL for everyone, and we know exactly what we need to do: we have life saving vaccines, we just need to distribute them to everyone around the world. We have to remove all barriers to countries in the global south being able to easily and cheaply produce their own supply. And we need to encourage social distancing and mask usage. And if we don’t do those things, it’s just going to keep getting worse and worse.
And we are not doing those things. Even in the US where we have plenty of vaccines to go around, our politicians are downplaying the deaths at the expense of the stock market, and some of them are outlawing policies that would undoubtedly help, like mask mandates. And our celebrities are getting their vaccines and protecting themselves while encouraging others to reject the vaccine.
And the pandemic is something that is unavoidable and personal. The average person can easily pretend that heat waves, category 5 hurricanes, wildfires, and floods are just par for the course and have nothing to do with fossil fuels, but it takes an incredible amount of stubborn ignorance to deny this pandemic. But they still managed to do it, and they’ll do it about global warming.
The only difference between these two scenarios — COVID and AGW — is that global warming is happening at a larger, slower scale. That’s good and bad: bad because it could literally mean that our planet will be uninhabitable for humans in a few hundred years. I know some people who think that no matter how bad a problem is, we can always science our way out of it. But the data is so damning, and the potential challenges coming down the road so daunting that they may exceed our ability to overcome them.
And in case you’re wondering how accurate this report is, allow me to point out two extremely disturbing facts: first, we have more satellite data, buoy data, air quality data, than we’ve ever had in human history. And yet, my second fact is that back in 1990 the IPCC report said that by 2050 we could expect to see an increase of global temperature between 1.5 and 4.5C (we are currently up to 1 degree), a sea level rise of 30 to 50 centimeters (we are currently at 20 centimeters). They predicted an increased occurrence of floods, droughts, and severe storms, and that the hardest hit would be those in the global south thus increasing “the gap between developed and developing countries.”
That was thirty years ago. They were right. We did nothing. Now they have even more data. I guarantee you, they are right. Things are bad, but if we do nothing they will be much, much worse. We need our politicians to reject the lobbying efforts of the fossil fuel industry. We need to prioritize alternative energy sources. We need to eat less meat. We need to stop billionaires from taking joy rides in space. Or from existing. We need to be depressed enough that we remember to annoy our politicians, but not so depressed that we climb into bed and give up. I mean, after a week or so of recuperation.