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Local Scientists, Climate Leaders Call for Immediate Action Following UN Climate Change Report

The British Columbia Wildfire Service responded to multiple fires in the province in early July. Two wildfires pictured here, the Long Loch wildfire and the Derickson Lake wildfire, are in close proximity and estimated to be 740 acres combined in size.
The British Columbia Wildfire Service
The British Columbia Wildfire Service
The British Columbia Wildfire Service responded to multiple fires in the province in early July. Two wildfires pictured here, the Long Loch wildfire and the Derickson Lake wildfire, are in close proximity and estimated to be 740 acres combined in size.

A major new climate change report says global temperatures are expected to increase by 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels in the next two decades, bringing more heatwaves, droughts, flooding, wildfires, and other climate disasters.

More than 200 scientists from more than 60 countries worked on the report, which was released Monday by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report, the first major review of its kind since 2013, draws upon more than 14,000 individual studies and is being described as a “code red for humanity.”

It warns that coastal communities could experience as much as a six-foot rise in sea levels by the end of this century and that the hotter future is essentially locked in due to lack of action on carbon emissions.

“The new IPCC report projects that sea level is likely to rise by a little less than a foot by 2050, so that’s only 30 years away, regardless of the emissions scenario around how much we emit,” said Jessica Tierney, an author of the report and associate professor of geosciences, University of Arizona. There will be regional differences, but so far, the Cape and Islands are expected to experience serious consequences from sea level rise, coastal flooding, erosion, and storm surge.

“You may have heard the phrase: We’re not all in same boat but we are all in the same storm. And that’s incredibly true for climate change,” said Heather Goldstone, an ocean scientist and chief communications officer at Woodwell Climate Research Center in Woods Hole.

Rising sea levels are particularly concerning for the Cape, where officials with the Cape Cod Commission say storm surge and sea level rise could lead to $50 billion in losses from damaged roads and homes, lost tax revenue, reduced beach tourism, and decreased land value.

“This isn’t going to get better as soon as we stop emitting greenhouse gasses,” Goldstone said. “And so we have to look that in the face and plan for that for the next 30 to 50 years to ensure that, while this might be what we’re stuck with, we can do as much as possible to limit the damage of extreme weather, whether that’s flooding, drought, heat waves, or fire.”

Action, she said, must be taken at every level, by those who run everything from countries to counties.

“We have a critical role in adaptation planning,” Goldstone said. “That’s really where all adaptation planning is happening, is at the local level. What do we do with our beaches, our roads, our septic and sewer systems? How do we make ourselves resilient? That’s local.”

The bottom line, the report warns, is that the world needs to move away from burning fossil fuels immediately. If countries and industries are able to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere by 2050 — and remove large amounts of carbon from the air — it could keep temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius, which would prevent additional catastrophic damage.

“Every point-one, and every point-five, of a degree Celsius makes a really big difference in the risks that we’re facing when you translate those into actual changes in the climate and changes in our weather. It makes a big difference in terms of the frequency and severity of drought, the frequency and severity of flooding. It makes a big difference in how high sea level eventually gets,” Goldstone said. “It makes a big difference in all of the aspects of the climate that we actually feel, even if the difference between 1.1 and 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius of warming doesn’t seem like a big deal to most of us.”

If global warming hits 2 degrees Celsius, heat waves are expected to be 14 times more common, and every tenth of a degree further could carry additional climate consequences. Already, the report said, since 1950 heat waves have become significantly hotter and longer-lasting in much of the world. Experts warn that if global temperatures rise by 2 degrees, 3 degrees or even 4 degrees Celsius, compared with the preindustrial era, parts of the world would start becoming uninhabitable for humans and natural systems would begin crossing “tipping points,” like the irreversible collapse of ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica.

Now, climate scientists and local leaders are looking ahead to the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, where politicians, business leaders and policy makers will meet in 12 weeks to potentially increase their existing climate commitments.

“The sense of urgency is the most critical thing,” said Rich Delaney, executive director of the Cape Cod Climate Change Collaborative and Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown. “We don’t have any more time to waste. We’ve wasted decades. If this [report and COP26] doesn’t serve as a catalyst for dramatic change, we are in big trouble.”

Goldstone agreed, but added there’s still time to turn things around.

“At this point, climate emergency, climate crisis, yes, that’s where we are. … [But] an emergency, just like a deep cut on your arm, is one that is urgent and demands action and there is action that you can take,” she said. “If there’s nothing that you can do about it, it’s not an emergency. It’s just a tragedy. We’re not there yet.”

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.