The day after the Olympics end, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) plans to release the much-anticipated Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). After years of work by experts around the world and over 77,000 review comments from independent experts and governments, this is a huge report release. The language is undergoing final scrutiny as governments and authors wrestle line by line over this summary that will be read by policymakers around the world. Every word must convey the vast scientific evidence buried within the chapters of the working group 1 report titled Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, which is a 2021 update to the prior report that was approved in September 2013. Even if you may have read a leaked draft, the exact language is likely to change. What is said, what is not said, what is slightly changed is a brinkmanship effort to both reflect the evidence accurately and be understandable in multiple languages. Here are 5 flags to watch for as you read this updated accounting of the latest science on the physical manifestations and trajectory of climate change.
United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCC) Paris Agreement flag:
Signatories to this legally binding international agreement on climate change have submitted their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), aka country emissions reduction goals, which taken together help track whether the world “achieves the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement.” This includes limiting the global mean surface temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Look for how the AR6 summary for policymakers characterizes the range of the remaining carbon budget for global emissions to not surpass 1.5 °C (which we already know is rapidly dwindling). Those who have seen or heard the headlines of lives lost to horrendous heat waves, record-breaking floods, droughts, wildfires, and warm water coral reefs harmed by ocean heat waves won’t be surprised by this spoiler alert. The stark truth in the AR6 is we don’t have much time left to achieve the long-term goal of the Paris Agreement. Not much wiggle room is left for remaining carbon emissions, and the pace required to get to zero emissions is assuredly far beyond yesterday’s incremental policy incentives.
Global leaders’ statements flag:
What will leaders around the world say about the latest climate assessment? A Kudelka cartoon published soon after the fifth assessment report release captured how many scientists may feel. It depicts an increasingly urgent message being said by someone standing at a podium for each successive climate assessment, 1990, 1995, 2001, 2007, 2013. Then for the next and last image the person taps the microphone and asks, “is this thing on?” Even if many report authors might personally hope for a global response commensurate with the contents of the report, these reports cannot be policy-prescriptive.
The IPCC process requires international collaboration between governments to share knowledge, combine resources and produce assessments that inform policy. One can think of these as an international report card of results. How have the combined activities of public and private sectors since the last assessment report changed the climate by the time of each report?
Watch to see if global leaders indicate if they may change their respective nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement in response to this latest clarion call from scientists. In particular, what tangible policies, actions or plans are leaders initiating to meet their NDCs? Look for signals that demonstrate a shift in commitments of resources for communities and countries with fewer resources available to transition to a low carbon economy and adapt to mounting climate risks. Look for plans to shift rapidly away from fossil fuels to clean energy. Taken all together, is the scale of commitments aligned with the scale of the evidence in the report and the international agreement?
Many global leaders’ statements reflect the pressures their respective societies are demanding. Are we reaching social tipping points? People have already acted on current harm to their communities, and have gone so far as to put their lives on the line by stopping investment in fossil fuel projects that ignore cultural heritage sites or that would increase carbon emissions if allowed to proceed. Communities, especially communities who have experienced inequitable exposure to toxic pollution over many decades, are demanding that proposed solutions to reduce carbon emissions not further expose people to toxic pollutants.
Multinational corporations continue to exert influence, resources, or systems to be more aligned while others continue to remain less aligned with the Paris Agreement. Consumers are watching these corporate actions and making their preferences known via social media and sending economic signals. Nonprofit organizations that monitor various economic sectors can shed sunlight on entities they monitor for “greenwashing” (i.e. making any overstatement of scale of commitment compared with metrics). Shareholders can demand corporations invest in infrastructure that is resilient to growing climate risks over the design lifetime of a project.
Oh yes, scientists are another factor in societies stepping into new roles in the private sector, public sector, and nonprofit sector and grappling with how to bridge understanding across disciplines, experience, and perspectives. Co-creating more options for how to put into practice and choose, tweak, and adjust the solutions smorgasbord to become more resilient and ensure a just transition to a Paris Agreement world.
Sowing doubt flag:
The importance of these assessments could be measured by the resources and energy spent on sowing doubt about the evidence by front groups supporting misrepresentation of the reports through all forms of media, briefings, and presentations. Watch out for classic tactics called out by UCS in its disinformation playbook: the Diversion, the Screen, the Fake, The Fix, and the Blitz. For example, the Blitz is to harass a scientist who presents evidence inconvenient for special interest groups. This has occurred for scientists who provided evidence or contributed key findings in prior IPCC reports that increased the evidence for climate change impacts attributed to human activities. Many of these tactics deployed by front groups funded by fossil fuel companies over the years have and continue to influence the global leaders and societies mentioned above.
I am looking forward to sharing new figures, updated numbers, and more intuitive ways for the public and policymakers to interact with the mountain of scientific evidence in the upcoming IPCC report. I have received many questions about the “latest climate science,” as well as the why, the how, and the implications. There are so many gems buried in chapters of the report. While a single peer-reviewed study can push the boundaries of our current scientific knowledge, the AR6 and prior IPCC reports are so valuable because thousands of scientific studies serve as their foundation. Each figure, table, and key message is carefully vetted so that it conveys the most pertinent information to the broadest level of global applications. Regional climate assessments can fill in the gaps locally. However, they all hang off the core principles in this assessment. This goes way beyond a second or third opinion on a medical diagnosis.
It gives me goosebumps to think about how much initiative, flexibility, and courage the IPCC colleagues, volunteer authors, and reviewers from around the world have as they continue to work through a global pandemic to produce the entire AR6. Those of us who have the privilege to read each other’s publications, and contribute some as well over the years since the last assessment, know what the AR6 contains. What to watch for is: will the public see and feel and be motivated to act on the vast consensus by scientists who participate in sharing the evidence with various forms of media and panels, etc.? Some meetings have been added that are outside the venues we typically participate in, such as a virtual conference in another discipline or a local community gathering.
It is a clarion call for all scientists—including much needed expertise from social scientists—to draw upon the vast knowledge from their respective fields to help societies better understand how to navigate and be an active part of the changes ahead. Climate change is brought about by human systems, cultures, and societies acting independently, collectively, and sometimes in conflict. We can draw upon lessons from ancient human history and current living knowledge when communities have faced massive extreme changes in the past. What do 20th and 21st century systems and history tell us about what has worked, what no longer is up to this challenge, and where can we improve? We can invest in social dimensions of change through social science, artists, influencers, and leaders in communities at all scales to keep the world closer to one we recognize, such as 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer, while buying more time for adaptation. Or we can continue to resist changing systems and be forced to react, suffer, or adapt to a greater degree to the pace of change that the current path of our systems would bake in—including an unprecedented pace for loss of species regionally or worldwide, much earlier and greater ice sheet volume loss in Antarctica and Greenland, and outdoor activities being severely limited in uninhabitable parts of the world during local summer season. With either extreme path mentioned above or the many scenarios in between, the world through collective action ultimately chooses its fate, and the demand for social science will be immense.
I look forward to August 9, 2021, when the microphone will be on in Geneva, Switzerland and people around the world will be listening and seeing through their devices the stark findings of the global science community contribution to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report.