IPCC report highlights a demand for more equitable and environmentally conscious choices

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This response to the IPCC Working Group 1 contribution to the 6th Assessment Report is presented by the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University, co-authored by Peter Schlosser, Manfred Laubichler, Jason Franz, Joni Adamson, Michael Barton, Steven Beschloss, Nina Berman, Gary Dirks, Juilianna Gwiszcz, Christopher Wharton and Dave White.

The Working Group 1 contribution to the 6th Assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released on August 9, comes at a moment when our planet is experiencing multiple crises, some of which directly highlight the key findings of the report.

This new report, “Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis,” establishes that while the science to understand and technology to address climate change has vastly improved, the human impact on climate has been even stronger in a negative direction. The global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius to as much as 2 degrees Celsius is unavoidable and potentially being reached years ahead of the 2050 target outlined in the 2013 IPCC 15th Special Report and codified in the Paris agreement.

Two leading and highly visible indicators of the verge of a planetary environmental collapse are wildfires and storm-induced flooding. We are witnessing both types of events occurring around the world simultaneously at record levels in just the last month.

At this moment in Siberia, Russia, typically one of the coldest places on the planet, temperatures of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (ca. 38 Celsius) are stoking a wildfire that has consumed more than 8,000 square miles — a scale of devastation more immense than all other current fires combined. Those fires comprise events along the coastlines of Italy, Greece and Turkey, as well as Hawaii and California, including the latter state’s Dixie Fire, the largest recorded single fire in state history.

Meanwhile, extreme storms have unleashed flooding in central Europe, southern Asia and right here in Arizona. The floods in Bangladesh have wiped away numerous refugee camps of thousands of people who were forced to escape both military oppression and climate change impacts from countries such as Myanmar and India.

The wildfires in Washington and Oregon are burning through forests used by major corporations like Microsoft for their carbon offset programs and thus raising questions about the viability of such simplistic strategies.

These extreme events follow a series of other major wildfire seasons, changing monsoon patterns in certain regions and stronger hurricanes in others and are strong indicators that our planet is moving towards a new climate regime with projected adverse impacts, as well as new surprises in a Greenhouse World. To avoid additional, more extreme climate related events, we no longer have decades to make choices to change what we can and should do to mitigate global warming — we must act now and act more boldly than envisioned in any of the current commitments. Each year we are not meeting the goals set forth by the Paris Accord and the IPCC 1.5 degree report will require even stronger efforts in the following years.

The negative impacts of human activities on our planet are not just affecting the climate system. They also place pressure on other environmental systems such as water availability and quality, food supply or disease vectors, among many others. And as the extreme events described above show, entire communities are being forced into displacement with the population of climate refugees on the rise around the world. This is a logical consequence of the high level of interconnectivity between these systems as well as between the environmental and the societal systems, the latter being the ultimate drivers of change on our planet. We have outgrown the capacity of our planet to sustain “business as usual.” In other words, global society is asking our planet to give more than it has to offer. Unless we dramatically change our ways to more equitable and environmentally conscious choices we face a future in which life will be forced to severely adapt through sacrifice or self regulation of the planet.

It used to be believed that our global environment was affected by a series of cascading events. This could not be farther from the truth. Our planet is an assemblage of tightly interconnected, complex dynamic systems. For example, climate, biodiversity, food/water/resource security, inequality and political polarization are all irreducibly connected aspects of the overall Earth system.

Our intrinsic tendency to isolate problems in order to find well-defined solutions proved to be an inadequate strategy at all levels. Scientifically, we failed to pay attention to how tightly social and environmental aspects of global change are coupled; politically, a fragmented approach focused on the least common denominator had the world caught in a race to the bottom for far too long; and individually and collectively, our inability to grasp the urgency of the situation and to perceive the consequences of individual and collective actions has kept us from implementing meaningful change.

For example, a year ago we noted that the COVID pandemic was a stress test of our planetary systems. Many around the world hoped that, while the pandemic was a shock to our social and economic health systems, it would also be a major reset on our environmental and planetary health systems. What we have seen, and what this IPCC report demonstrates, is that this simply has not (yet?) been the case. We are failing to contain the pandemic, not because we did not succeed in developing vaccines, but because too many people are not willing to be vaccinated and we fail at responsible collective action at virtually every scale.

Just as we demonstrated with poor preparedness and response to COVID, we are historically and currently displaying the same shortsightedness when it comes to climate action. As with the current state of the pandemic, we possess most of the tools to succeed, but we lack the commitment to necessary action. In our view, this represents a failure of communication and societal will -and ultimately requires the necessary imagination to transform systems at a global scale.

The pandemic showed that unprecedented resources can be marshaled to deal with the fallout of catastrophic events. Humans saw the virus as such an existential threat that vast resources including funding and access to facilities were made available to produce vaccines at a record speed. That same urgency is now required to address the climate threats that have been growing steadily for more than 100 years. Used in a strategic way, dynamic transformations that can help us avoid the worst implications of the IPCC report and put our global society and the Earth system on a different trajectory could be initialized at potentially a smaller amount of the resources deployed for COVID.

This idea — the opportunity of human action to positively and impactfully help shape our global future to ensure a habitable planet for all — is at the very essence of the work being done by more than 600 scientists and scholars here at Arizona State University. This is why we are endeavoring to create technological systems that will work in harmony with the planet’s natural systems to remove carbon from the atmosphere and stop the global warming that we are experiencing. This is why we collaborate across the sciences, the humanities and arts to identify solutions and work among international networks to engage citizens from around the world. This is how the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory is shaping tomorrow, today.

Designing and shaping a future in which Earth will thrive.