People and Community Science and Technology

Latest climate change report a ‘code red for humanity’

Earth is warming at a rate faster than previously thought, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment report warns. It will take reducing greenhouse gas emissions by substantial levels to avoid a climate catastrophe, University of Miami researchers say.
In this file photo dated Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, a man watches as wildfires approach Kochyli beach near Limni village on the island of Evia, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Athens, Greece. Photo: The Associated Press
A man watches as wildfires approach Kochyli beach near Limni village on the island of Evia, about 100 miles north of Athens, Greece. Photo: The Associated Press

The news couldn’t have been timelier. 

While in the middle of updating a lecture on global warming, University of Miami researcher Amy Clement learned of the latest report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that delivered the strongest message yet on the health of the planet: Earth is warming faster than previously thought, and the window to prevent the most catastrophic impacts of climate change from occurring is rapidly closing.

Clement, a professor of atmospheric science at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, wasn’t surprised.

“Each time the IPCC issues these reports, they contain new data from climate models showing more and more conclusively that humans are the driver of climate change,” she said. “Now, with this latest report, scientists have shown unequivocally that human activity is causing the climate to change, and some of these changes may be irreversible.”

Compiled by 234 scientists, the landmark report says Earth has warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels and is rapidly headed toward the 1.5-degree threshold at which our climate system will start to look unrecognizable.

A need to step up efforts

“The only way to prevent exceeding this threshold is by urgently stepping up our efforts and pursuing the most ambitious path,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres, calling the report a “code red for humanity.” 

Part of the IPCC’s sixth climate assessment since 1990, the 3,000-plus-page report “underscores the urgency in terms of the need to reduce carbon emissions and the breadth of changes we are already experiencing from human-induced climate change beyond what was detected only 10 years ago,” said Ben Kirtman, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the Rosenstiel School, who was a coordinating lead author for IPCC Working Group One—the Scientific Basis. 

Kirtman noted that the report highlights studies that demonstrate how extreme events such as heat waves, cold spells, floods, and droughts are influenced by human activity. 

“In terms of South Florida, there is high confidence that sea level rise is accelerating,” he said. “Indeed, the rate of rise has nearly doubled over the last 15 years as glaciers continue to melt. There has been a detected increase in the number of Category 3 to 5 hurricanes, and human-induced climate change increased the heavy rainfall associated with tropical storms. And there is every indication that these trends will continue and even accelerate if we do not act quickly to reduce fossil fuel emissions.” 

Those choices for reducing emissions are pivotal for limiting increases in extreme heat, wildfires, and floods, said Katharine Mach, an associate professor of environmental science and policy at the Rosenstiel School and a lead author on the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report. 

It will take substantial investment in technologies devoted to clean energy and zero-emission vehicles, efficient buildings, and carbon-sensitive farming to help make the necessary changes called for in the report, Mach explained. 

“It is also crucially important to address deforestation that results in substantial emissions of heat trapping gases into the atmosphere,” she stressed. “Across all these categories and more, political will and enabling policies are central in accelerating the scope and scale of deployed solutions. And as the next report will describe, there are many options available for managing and adapting to increasing climate risks as well.” 

Jessica Owley agrees that the stark warning issued by leading climate scientists is indeed dire. But the professor of law and faculty director of the Environmental Law Program at the School of Law doesn’t believe anyone who has been paying attention to the worsening crisis is surprised by the authors’ findings. “Many of us thought the previous reports were too cautious,” said Owley, who two years ago led a delegation of students from her UN negotiations class to Madrid for the United Nations COP25 climate change conference. 

She hopes to lead another group to COP26 in Glasgow later this year to engage in problem-solving for what she still considers the greatest problem of our era: climate change. She remains skeptical, however, that the nation will succeed in its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “Our society’s handling of COVID-19 is not giving me confidence in our ability to tackle climate change,” she said. “Even when we know what will solve the problems, we aren’t willing to make the needed changes.” 

Who will be affected? 

No one will be spared the effects of a warming climate, said Shivangi Prasad, a senior lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Geography, whose research focuses on social vulnerability and the societal response to creeping climate stresses. 

Still, she said, some groups will bear a heavier burden—from the poor and those whose livelihoods are dependent on agriculture, fisheries, and forestry to inhabitants of low-lying islands, coastal areas, and regions vulnerable to extreme weather events and to the elderly and those living in substandard housing. “The most vulnerable are already on their way to becoming climate refugees,” Prasad said. 

Also among the vulnerable: plant and animal species, including some in South Florida and the Florida Keys, which will be pushed to or beyond the brink of extinction, warned Kenneth Feeley, an associate professor and the Smathers Chair of Tropical Tree Biology in the Department of Biology. 

So, too, will coral reefs suffer, agree Rosenstiel School researchers who are studying those underwater ecosystems to understand how climate change is impacting their health. 

“And since we depend on these species for the many different services they provide, their loss will undoubtedly be detrimental for our livelihoods,” Feeley explained. “The small glimmer of hope in the report is that there is still time for us to take drastic measures and avoid the worst-case scenarios. But making the changes necessary to keep Earth habitable will not be easy and will require concerted bipartisan efforts on the part of individuals, industries, and governments everywhere.” 

Prasad echoed those sentiments. “We need to respond [to the climate emergency] as individuals, communities, and countries,” she said. “From making changes to our personal lifestyles, to reaching out to our policymakers, to coming together on a global platform to agree on policies such as carbon taxation and supporting renewable energy. We need to do all of that and more,” she said. “Cutting emissions is very important, but we are well past the point where we can put the brakes on warming over the next few decades at least. For that reason, we need to invest heavily and strategically in adaptation, be it planned retreat from coastal areas, engineering crops to thrive in warmer conditions, and other measures.” 

Avoiding a climate catastrophe will also call for managing more effectively the systems that surround us, Clement said. “As long as we are not managing our forests, our coastlines, and our ecosystems in ways that prepare them for increasing changes to the climate,” she explained, “the impacts, which are already getting worse because of climate change itself, will be amplified because of our lack of preparation.”