The IPCC Report and Our Code Red Summer

 Policy-Canadian Politics and Public Policy

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Elizabeth May

August 11, 2021

As a longtime environmental activist, then as leader of Canada’s Green Party, my interest in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment reports over more than three decades has been more than academic. But this year, like so many British Columbians, western Canadians and other human beings worldwide whose interest in climate change has gone from abstract to existential, the urgency of the threat became deeply personal.

My stepdaughter Julia, my husband John Kidder’s youngest, nearly died in the heat dome of late June. This article in the Tyee is about her experience. Nearly six hundred people did die – in the space of a few days.

The temperature at John’s farm in Ashcroft, about 60 km from Lytton, hit 50 degrees C.  Julia Kidder is a young and healthy woman. She had been living on the farm. She is still recovering from the effects of serious heat stroke. Meanwhile, John’s niece was working as a paramedic, pulling people from shacks and trailers around Williams Lake; realizing they were unlikely to make it to the hospital. They could not speak as the paramedics arrived to help. She was pretty blunt, “By the time we got to them, their organs were cooking.”

While much of Europe is devastated by floods, the wildfires are still burning — in BC, in Siberia and in Greece. Prairie farmers are in crisis. And globally, the statistical race between droughts and floods breaks records, day after day.

After the heat dome, as John returned to the farm to put sprinklers on the roof to try to protect it from fire, he was delayed all up and down the highway from Chilliwack to Hope by massive construction, hundreds of workers along the side of the highway. The delays allowed him to see new clouds of billowing smoke from up behind Merritt. With the window down, John heard one guy on a backhoe call out and complain to another “There is not even one f*****g helicopter up there to put out the fire.”

John finally worked out why there was so much construction. The crews were there to build the Trans Mountain Pipeline. John wanted to scream “Shut down what you are doing and start making fire breaks!”, but the pipeline must be built. Our tax dollars at work. It is hard to stay calm. It is hard to stay polite. British Columbians didn’t need another IPCC report to tell us we are in a climate emergency.

With the window down, John heard one guy on a backhoe call out and complain to another ‘There is not even one f*****g helicopter up there to put out the fire’.

It may seem to readers not immersed daily in the details of international climate change science and policy that the scientists whose work informs the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been scrambling to find new ways to convince the world of the urgent need for action when, in fact, the IPCC reports always underestimate the risk and overestimate how much time we have to avoid that risk. Still, the latest report, delivered this week, was dubbed a “code red for humanity” by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

The IPCC is, as the name suggests, an intergovernmental process. One hundred and ninety-five countries (all nations on earth) contribute to the process; all governments appoint scientists to the panel. There are three Working Groups in the IPCC. The August 9th report was the contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) from Working Group 1 – the group that looks at the physical science. Working Group 2 reviews the vulnerability of humans and nature to climate impacts as well as measures to adapt to coming changes. That group will report in February. Working Group 3 looks at technology to address the crisis, with its report due in March.

The IPCC is the world’s largest and most rigorous peer-review process. The scale of the review is daunting. This is from the IPCC’s description of the recently released review by Working Group 1:

“The first-order draft of the Working Group I report received 23,462 review comments from 750 expert reviewers, the second-order draft received 51,387 review comments from governments and 1,279 experts, and the final government distribution of the Summary for Policymakers that ended on 20 June received over 3,000 comments from 47 governments – 23 developing, 23 developed plus the European Union. Over 14,000 scientific papers are referenced in the report.”

The underestimation of impacts is baked into a process that starts with reviewing published science, and delay is inevitable. Each full assessment process takes seven years. When the Fourth Assessment was published in 2007, it expressed high confidence in a projection of about a one-metre sea level rise by 2100. But by the time the report was released, new research was pointing out the risk of eight-metre sea level rise if the Western Antarctic ice sheet collapsed – or another eight metre rise if the Greenland ice sheet should collapse. The earlier science was carefully described, but the newer information just did not make it into a report for which new information is too late for review.

The final IPCC report is edited line by line by governments. The statement of the worst-case scenario is usually watered down. So, we knew that early drafts of the October 2018 Special Report on 1.5 degrees C had included the risk of runaway global warming. The early drafts set out that failing to meet Paris Agreement targets of holding to as far below 2 degrees C as possible, and preferably to 1.5 degrees C global average temperature rise could lead to unstoppable self-accelerating warming that could make the planet uninhabitable. It was reported that the US and Saudi Arabia edited that out (that’s right — the Trump White House held a red pencil on edits).

The Special Report on 1.5 Degrees C landed between the seven-year reviews. It was requested by the countries negotiating the Paris Agreement at COP21. Having agreed on language for the Paris Agreement, aiming to stay as far below 2 degrees C as possible and preferably holding to 1.5 degrees C, the negotiators asked the IPCC to report on what the difference between 2 degrees C and 1.5 degrees C would mean.  The IPCC was asked to deliver its review prior to the climate negotiations taking place at COP24, in December 2018. Knowing the IPCC never exaggerates impact and, in fact, always does the opposite, let’s look at what the Special Report on 1.5 Degrees C warned. (October 2018).

The differences between 1.5 and 2 degrees C were hugely significant. The critical importance of holding to no more than 1.5 C was clear. Equally clear was that the only way to hold to 1.5 was immediate action; reducing emissions on a steep decline through “large, immediate and unprecedented global efforts to mitigate gases.”

The IPCC reports always underestimate the risk and overestimate how much time we have to avoid that risk. Still, the latest report, delivered this week, was dubbed a ‘code red for humanity’ by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

This warning has not been heeded. Monday’s report found that the carbon budget to avoid going above 1.5 or 2 C was disappearing faster than we thought in 2018. The call for “immediate and unprecedented global efforts” is now nearly three years old. Bear in mind, again, that the IPCC overestimates how much time we have. The situation is desperate. The call for action is growing stale-dated as we teeter on the edge of an abyss.

Scientists do not communicate panic. The language of the Summary for Policy Makers is anodyne.

Here is a sample:

“Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since AR5.” Translation: “Since our last report in 2013, everything is worse everywhere. All our conclusions have been fortified.”

The IPCC press release is much clearer:

“The report provides new estimates of the chances of crossing the global warming level of 1.5°C in the next decades, and finds that unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.” But we knew that already. And we also knew this: “Many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level.”

What we have done cannot be undone. We are heading toward a risk of the end of life as we know it. This next finding is particularly alarming – making the hair on the back of my neck stand up. This time the IPCC acknowledges that much worse — non-linear perturbations, or sudden shocks to the whole global climate system — could happen:

“Low-likelihood outcomes, such as ice sheet collapse, abrupt ocean circulation changes, some compound extreme events and warming substantially larger than the assessed very likely range of future warming cannot be ruled out and are part of risk assessment.”

So, a code red for humanity it is. And still Justin Trudeau builds pipelines, increases subsidies for fossil fuels, while passing a nearly useless climate law setting a target in 30 years’ time with a first reality check in 2030. Jagmeet Singh gives the Liberals a free pass, hardly ever mentioning climate in Parliament. As a quick point of reference, one MP (that would be me, with no right to speak in Parliament and one question a month in QP) has raised climate in the House this session 85 times, to 12 times for Singh.

We are literally, not figuratively, running out of time. The latest IPCC science is the strongest warning yet. As Guterres warned, “The alarm bells are deafening… This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet.”

Nothing less than moving to shut down all fossil fuels as fast as possible, will assure our children a reasonable chance of a hospitable world.

Elizabeth May, MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, is the former leader of the Green Party of Canada.