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Regional Interests

The Latest Global Climate Report Is Set to Publish Next Month. Here’s What to Expect

It’s been nearly a decade since the United Nations released its last climate change assessment. That dire report, which was published in 2014, described in detail how the burning of fossil fuels is altering the climate, leading to increasingly severe drought, worsening wildfires, and mass die-offs of coral reefs.

Last week, hundreds of the world’s top scientists hashed out final details of the next U.N. report, as much of the world is tested, again, by scorching heat waves, destructive floods, and megafires.

The next iteration of the assessment could be published on Aug. 9, pending approval by the researchers convened by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It will be the sixth edition.

This latest report aims to guide government decisions on addressing global warming and adapting to its impacts.

NPR reported that the new IPCC study will include a set of five hypothetical policy scenarios, “a collection of imaginary worlds in which countries pursue different sets of climate policies.” These scenarios will take into account carbon emissions reductions, population growth, economic development, and technological change.

“This is our best and most comprehensive update on the state of international climate science, and it provides a foundation for international policy development as we move forward,” Lara Kueppers, a UC Berkeley professor and climate scientist at Berkeley Lab, told KQED’s Brian Watt last week.

But given the breakneck pace at which climate science is evolving, and the escalating destruction from warming-driven environmental disasters, Kueppers thinks it’s time for faster, locally focused assessments.

“We’ve really left it up to the IPCC, but it’s clear that scientific support for local planning and decision-making is necessary — and the need for this is only growing,” she said.

Kueppers interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How do the IPCC assessments get used?

At best, this document will spur more concerted policy action on climate. At worst it will be a virtual doorstop. The printed and bound versions of these past assessments are quite weighty. Unfortunately, current climate commitments, including the pledges by the Biden administration and other nations, are still insufficient to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit warming to one-and-a-half degrees globally, according to the Climate Action Tracker, which follows all of these commitments closely.

My hope is really that all that we’ve learned [since the last assessment published], from the warming that we’ve seen in the ocean, to the rapid changes that we’ve seen in the cryosphere, to even the more finely resolved images of future impacts on human health and livelihoods, spurs the needed policy progress that nations around the world hope to see.

Can you describe the pace at which climate science is evolving?

Climate research and the effects of human economic activity on the climate really have a long history. And the scope and the depth of the science has really advanced quite rapidly in recent decades. But at the same time, the fundamentals have really remained the same for a century.

Back at the end of the 1800s, a Swedish scientist named Svante Arrhenius provided the first estimate of how increasing global CO2 from burning coal would push up temperatures around the globe.

This was a grainy black and white photograph of future climate. But the subsequent research has really added important color and resolution to that photograph. And I would say now the state of climate science has provided a high-definition image of what we can expect as the climate continues to evolve. And these recent events, even just the last year, are a trailer of our climate future.

Our governor says California is experiencing climate change fast forward. The impacts are here now and happening fast. Sounds like you agree with him? 

I absolutely agree. California, like everywhere else on the planet, is experiencing the changing climate right now. We know that episodic droughts are natural occurrences in the state, but coupled with higher temperatures, this really puts incredible stress on agriculture and on our natural ecosystems. The warmer temperatures are drying vegetation faster and leading to longer fire seasons. And our firefighters really recognize this as well.

At the same time, the warmer winters are allowing populations of tree-damaging insects to multiply faster, and they’re putting drought-stressed forests at greater risk. We are well on the path to a new climate normal. And that path is going to be pretty rocky in nearly every part of the state.

Given all of that, do we need these big U.N. reports to come faster?

I think so. In the past decades, we’ve really been content to leave the climate change policy to international diplomats, our federal, and even state representatives. The science input that they get, we’ve left up to the IPCC. But it’s clear that scientific support for local planning and decision-making is necessary — and the need for this is only growing. An influx of information every seven years is not quite adequate.

Even the U.N. has asked the IPCC for more specific, policy-directed interim reports. We need to address these needs. And to do that, we require new kinds of partnerships between scientists and communities and new organizational infrastructure as well. This is a pretty tall order, but I know it’s one that many climate researchers are willing to support. And I expect that there are communities around the state who would be very grateful to have more regular input and a clearer vision for what their communities can expect as they make decisions about issues like land-use planning or public safety.

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