The report, published Monday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), gives humanity just 12 years to mend our errant, polluting ways before we start facing climate catastrophe.
Compiled by 91 scientists from 40 countries who analyzed more than 6,000 scientific studies, the report warns that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rates, the Earth's atmosphere will warm by as much as 1.5 degrees Celsius above temperatures in 1850 — before the Industrial Revolution — by the time we reach 2040.
The report was commissioned by signatory nations following the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, crafted by representatives from 196 countries in December 2015 and now fully adhered to by 181 of them.
The report overturns previously held logic that 2 degrees Celsius was the threshold for climate change's most severe effects, the New York Times noted Tuesday.
What's really necessary, the report states, is for greenhouse gas pollution to be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and by 100 percent by 2050 — a great deal of that coming from the near-total elimination of coal as an electricity source (right now it generates 40 percent of our power). By contrast, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar would have to increase to 67 percent of our electricity production from 20 percent today.
"This report makes it clear: There is no way to mitigate climate change without getting rid of coal," Drew Shindell, a climate scientist at Duke University and an author of the report, told the New York Times Tuesday.
Kelly Stone, senior policy analyst at ActionAid USA, told Radio Sputnik's By Any Means Necessary Tuesday that the report "should be shocking," but that the good news is that reaching the Paris Climate Accord's 1.5 degree Celsius goal "isn't a technical challenge right now, it's a question of political will."
Stone told hosts Eugene Puryear and Bob Schlehuber that the purpose of the study was to elaborate what the 1.5 Celsius agreement in the Paris Accord actually means, looking at "what are the impacts of 1.5 degrees C, what are the impacts at 1.5 versus 2, and then also what would be entailed to actually have us reach that goal — what does it actually mean for what we need to do with our energy systems, what does it actually mean for the different policies that we need?"
"In many ways it's really scary, and it should be shocking as to how bad the impacts are going to be at both 1.5 but even worse at 2," Stone said, "but I do think there are some glimmers of hope in this report, because it says we can still reach 1.5. It's still possible, we just need to start right now."
"The Paris agreement is a bottom-up approach, so the Paris agreement sets out a framework, but really it's on each country to bring forward the effort that they're going to do, that will then total up collectively, hopefully, to reach the Paris agreement goals. And we know the first collection of what governments are pledging to do is sending us towards a world of 3 degrees Celsius [warmer than before the Industrial Revolution], which is a complete nightmare scenario."
Stone said, "This isn't a technical challenge right now; it's a question of political will."
A July 2017 report by the Climate Accountability Institute found that more than 70 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 have been put into the atmosphere by just 100 companies — and over half of emissions can be traced to just 25 corporate and state-owned entities. Nearly all of them are fossil fuel companies, such as ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, Aramco, Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Corporation.
The IPCC report estimates the potential damage that could be wrought by climate change at $54 trillion. Their antidote to this danger is extremely heavy carbon taxes, perhaps as high as $27,000 per ton by 2100, which the NYT notes would be politically impossible in the US. By comparison, the stiffest carbon tax in the world right now is Sweden's, at $150 per ton, according to carbontax.org.
Stone said that these kinds of big prices for carbon taxes shouldn't be seen as a prescriptive solution, but rather as illustrating "the need for a different type of policy approach.
The activist said that our approach should be to answer the question: "What kind of society do we want to live in?" She pointed out that the problem is bigger than simply heading off carbon outputs, as it is really about structuring a new kind of world that will be sustainable in the long run in terms of adequate output for human needs, an adequate quality of life for those involved, and adequate protection for the environment. "People buy into that vision more than a technocratic discussion about" models of carbon taxes and estimates about their effectiveness.
"We're seeing pretty severe impacts already at just 1 degree C of warming," Stone noted.
"I don't think that there's any part of our societies, actually, that are separate from climate change impacts," she said, noting that the coming effects of increasing temperatures will cost people their homes, creating tens of millions of migrants. "These people are losing everything sometimes, and how do we address that?" she asked.
"Agriculture is really connected to climate change," the activist said, noting it's "a pretty significant driver" of climate change but also "one of the sectors that feels the most immediate impacts."
"What we need to see is a food system that is not contributing to deforestation, that is not contributing as much to all of these other emissions, non-CO2 emissions," she said. "I think that some of the answer is in localizing. Some of it's also in what are we growing, what are we subsidizing? A lot of what the US grows right now doesn't actually go directly to human consumption. It's feed crops that end up going to ethanol or to animal feed, and that's really emissive productions; there's a huge climate cost for that. So changing both how we're producing that but also what we're producing, to be more focused on making sure that everyone is getting enough, getting a healthy diet, can make a huge difference in keeping emissions from the food sector low, which then creates all sorts of opportunities to a more just but also climate-friendly society."
"From a climate perspective, doing things that can increase soil health, that protect local waterways, that keep emissions low, but then that also shift consumption to really healthy and sustainable patterns isn't something that's going to be incentivized in the marketplace."
"We're gonna need federal government action to make these changes happen," Stone said. Local government work and on-the-street activism can push Congress in the right direction, she noted, not just in admitting that climate change exists, but implementing responsive policies "to the reality of the science."
Stone noted that, despite US President Donald Trump announcing last year he was pulling the US out of the Paris climate agreement, "legally we cannot [exit the agreement] for several more years, so State Department officials are at all of the negotiations on how Paris is going to be implemented. They were at the negotiations on the IPCC, and so a lot of what we're doing is tracking that to try to make sure that the US isn't harming or undermining an agreement that is not only essential, but we're also at this point saying we're going to leave."
"We need the Paris agreement to be as strong as we can. We need this, we need the science from places like the IPCC to be protected, and I think it's fair to say we aren't confident we can trust the Trump administration even to just stay away."
"Last year, the negotiations on the Paris agreement were actually headed by Fiji," which, she said, "brought a useful reminder of what exactly the stakes are here.. there are stories of people already being impacted."
One nation with a long-term plan for adapting to climate change is Cuba, which drafted a $100 million initiative to protect its coasts from rising sea levels and worsening tropical storms. Tarea Vida (or "Project Life"), was adopted the previous spring by the Council of Ministers but given new urgency by Hurricane Irma, which in September 2017 lashed the island with 165 mph winds, erased 15,000 homes and inundated the capital of Havana in 10 feet of water. The plan, which looks as much as a century into the future, calls for shoring up the coastlines with strengthened mangrove swamps and coral reefs, both of which can absorb some of the most damaging effects of storm surges; the construction of wave breakers like jetties; and the inevitable relocations of coastal villages to locations further inland.
"It's impressive," marine scientist David Guggenheim, president of nonprofit organization Ocean Doctor, told Scientific American in January 2018. "Cuba is an unusual country in that they actually respect their scientists, and their climate change policy is science-driven."
"Irma has helped us with public awareness," Armando Rodríguez Batista, director of science, technology and innovation at Cuba's Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment, told Scientific American. "People understand that climate change is happening now."