Takeaways from the IPCC Report and the consequence of inaction

Photo of Waterloo Park lake

Climate change is unfolding rapidly before our eyes and a lack of inaction would lead to disastrous outcomes worldwide.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released their working group 1 report on Aug. 9th and it starts with a clear statement: 

“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.” 

This report is the first one to undoubtedly state that humans have greatly contributed to climate change.

Debora VanNijnatten, associate professor in the political science department at Wilfrid Laurier University, explained that the IPCC was created by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program in the late 1980s.

“It asks scientists from around the world to go through all the relevant scientific literature related to climate change and then make conclusions based on what they found,” she said.

Every seven to eight years, the IPCC carries out assessment reports which are composed of three sub-reports: working group 1, working group 2, and working group 3.

The report that was released last month was the working group 1 report, which gathered information about climate change science from the literature and will contribute to the assessment report that is due in September 2022. It involved over 750 scientists who reviewed 14,000 scientific publications and summarized the best of what is known about climate change.

“This report gives us the most up-to-date natural science information on what’s happening with global temperatures and with some of the climatic impacts,” VanNijnatten said.

Three basic takeaways from the report are that climate change is human-caused, its impacts are already underway and worse than anticipated in previous reports, and our future corresponds to how much action is taken to decrease greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.

The impacts outlined include increases in extreme heat events, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, monsoons, and extreme precipitation events.

These events are not only catastrophic for the earth, but they are also a hazard to our health, which is clear in the Ontario climate change and health modelling study that was done at the University of Toronto in 2016.

“[This study] made some predictions that our area would experience the most heat waves in Ontario, higher levels of ground-level ozone or smog, higher levels of West Nile virus transmitted by mosquitoes, and increases in extreme precipitation events,” VanNijnatten said.

Rising temperatures and reduced air quality lead to an increased incidence of heat-related illnesses, respiratory illnesses, and cardiovascular diseases, and the high temperature increases the risks of West Nile virus and Lyme disease, which are transmitted by vectors benefitting from the changes in the ecology. 

[This study] made some predictions that our area would experience the most heat waves in Ontario, higher levels of ground-level ozone or smog, higher levels of West Nile virus transmitted by mosquitos, and increases in extreme precipitation events.

debora vannijnatten

Extreme weather events, such as flooding and thunderstorms, increase the risk of food and waterborne illnesses, and the weakened infrastructure caused by these events causes injury and death.

Climate change has progressed faster than it was previously anticipated for multiple reasons, one of them being our energy system. 

“We build our entire energy and economic system on fossil fuels and just about everyone in the system profits by keeping the system in place,” VanNijnatten said.

The IPCC report lays out five scenarios ranging from “kind of bad to intermediately bad to really bad” depending on the action taken. Scenarios four and five are the worst ones.

“They foresee a much greater increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and much greater global temperature change.”

Although these increasing concentrations are irreversible, we can still do something to mitigate the severity of them and avoid the worst scenarios.

“We can’t walk back the stuff that’s already happening … but what that report says is that we can stave off the very worst stuff if we act,” VanNijnatten said. 

The government and policymakers are responsible for preventing a worse progression.  

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the government stepped in, shut down the economy, mandated masks, expanded hospital capacities, and funded social welfare programs for its citizens.

“I think that the impact of that is that the impression of what government can do has changed … the idea of spending huge amounts of money on anything, that also became more acceptable.”

VanNijnatten spoke about the Liberal government’s climate mitigation policies, which are policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas.

“They are active on the whole range of areas from focusing on specific pollutants, like methane, black carbon… what we call HFCs. All of those are particularly bad greenhouse gases, so they’re regulating in those areas and trying to reduce those … and they’re trying to move on the whole electric car thing,” she said.

The IPCC report concluded that these policies to reduce greenhouse gas need to be ramped up more quickly. 

“As a political scientist, I can sit here and tell you that I think the Liberals are working at the very end of their tether. They’re pulling on that leash as far as they can on climate policy, but there’s a whole bunch of political constraints in place,” she said.

A big one is money, and a second big one is that we’re fighting a pandemic. There are so many other things: equity issues, Indigenous reconciliation, and the government is trying to address all of these things. There are many very serious challenges at once, so there are other things that are competing for the government’s attention.”

The state of the environment may seem hopeless for citizens, but people and communities can help too. 

“Here’s your political science professor saying the first thing you can do is go out and vote. Vote on the basis of who’s going to actually do a good job of climate change,” VanNijnatten said.

She emphasized the importance of going online and looking at the party platforms and contacting the local candidates in whichever way is accessible to you.

“Get out and talk to them, ask some questions, give them a really hard time, inform yourself on some of the legal action that’s happening,” she said.

VanNijnatten said that speaking about the topic is important too.

“I understand how scary it is, and that we all need a break sometimes, especially now, when all the news is so depressing … it’s important to talk about it and to bring it up … make sure that your friends understand what’s going on and that your families talk about it,” she said. 

Climate action on the streets is also a way for people to be involved.

“In 2019, before COVID hit, we had the biggest climate demonstrations ever around the world, especially in Canada.”

Hopefully, people can be protesting and pushing for change again soon post-COVID.

Finally, online activism is an asset for this generation. 

“Get on Twitter, highlight some of these reports, pose questions to your elected representatives, bug people, ‘what are you doing?’ and really point out that some of the decisions they make are not climate-friendly,” she said.

It is especially vital for younger generations who are growing up with this looming climate threat.

“We have to act now … we have run out of time, and people your age should be furious, absolutely furious about what the older generations have done and continue to do.”

The climate crisis is not a future concern. It is happening now and something must be done to mitigate the severity of it and save our earth and its inhabitants. 

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