The IPCC report paints a dire picture of the impact of climate change, so the transition from carbon to other energy sources must speed up
With missiles falling on Ukraine, Kyiv encircled, and children hunkered in bomb shelters, you could be forgiven for missing the latest climate change report. Yet in the long run, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate adaptation released last Tuesday — coping with the effects of climate change — may turn out to be the more significant event.
The report got little media attention. Understandable, of course, with the dark shadow of war falling across Europe for the first time in decades. And understandable too from the point of view of media research, which shows that news of war and financial crisis crowds out environmental coverage.
Climate reports seem to have a lot in common with the art of comedy: timing, they say, is everything. A previous landmark climate document, the Fourth Assessment Report of 2007, was published just as the financial crisis was unfolding. There always seems to be something more pressing, more dramatic, for us to focus on. How can temperature graphs and photographs of polar bears compete with images of tanks, bloodshed, and human grief?
Yet when the war ends, in whatever way that might transpire, and when the financial crises fade, the environment will still be there. The geophysical processes involved in climate change do not pause for Putin, just as the tide did not stop for Canute.
The IPCC report makes it clear that there is a reckoning coming: either we drastically reduce emissions quickly, or we will pay a heavy price. In spelling out the already observed impact of climate change, the scientists paint a truly dire picture.
The effects of climate change on the ground are worse than feared. Already, 3.7 billion people have been affected, and the loss of ecosystems and entire species have been recorded. The UN secretary general gave one of the most hard-hitting speeches I have ever heard from a public official. This report was “an atlas of human suffering”, António Guterres said. What little media coverage of the report there was focused — again quite naturally, as this was the emphasis of the report’s authors — on disaster. They listed the impacts of the 1.1C warming we are already seeing, and predicted what would happen if we continued business as usual: almost all coral reefs bleached to death, mass animal deaths in wildfires, rising seas, salination of soils, crop failure, species migration, spread of “tropical” diseases.
The effects on audiences of framing climate change as a looming catastrophe are well researched. People tend to become fatalistic, in effect saying (to paraphrase Théoden from Lord of the Rings): “What can men do in the face of so much coal?” Disaster framing leads to what climate scientist Michael Mann calls “doomism” — the idea that we can do nothing when confronted by such a daunting challenge.
Yet the report also makes clear that there is still hope. There is still a window of opportunity to stop the worst impacts, but the window is rapidly closing. And all emissions indicators are pointing in the wrong direction. Guterres spelled it out quite bluntly: global emissions must fall by 45pc by 2030, and net zero must be achieved by 2050, if we are to avoid the worst. Yet those global emissions are set to rise by 14pc by the end of the decade. He also emphasised that every degree matters, every moment matters, that every piece of emissions reduction we can achieve means something.
The issuing of the report into what is essentially a war zone may have been bad from a news coverage point of view, but it was effective in focusing policymakers and the public on the question of the energy system and energy security.
There have been calls to lift bans on fracking, and to open up new territories for oil drilling. If Russia controls our gas supply, and can turn it on and off at Putin’s whim, this line of thinking goes, then we need to source hydrocarbons elsewhere, and fast. This is panicked reasoning. To find and burn more carbon would have repercussions that long outlast the invasion of Ukraine. It would guarantee that global heating exceeds 2C above pre-industrial levels, and at that stage, all bets are off.
Far better to use this crisis to understand that, as Guterres said, “the global energy mix is broken”, that “fossil fuels are a dead end”. Instead of relying on petrostates, speed the transition to other energy sources.
The world — the engineers, the financial markets, the EU Commission, and governments — is already travelling in this direction. The invasion of Ukraine should make us increase our speed of travel, rather than turn back.
Dr Dave Robbins is director of DCU’s Centre for Climate and Society, www.dcu.ie/climate