Kristie Ebi, a UW professor of global health, likened the new climate report to a doctor following up a patient's difficult diagnosis. “If you have cancer, you need the doctor to tell you how serious your cancer is and what your options are,” she said.
When a reporter asked President Donald Trump on Tuesday for thoughts about the new climate-change report, the president said he wanted to look at “who drew it,” seemingly imbuing skepticism of the process.
President Trump, meet Kristie Ebi, professor of global health at the University of Washington and one of the 91 scientists named as lead authors of the special report, which was produced by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Ebi, who specializes in impacts of and adaptation to climate change in low- and middle-income countries, volunteered an estimated 2,000 unpaid hours to work on the report. She spent the first week of October working around the clock in Incheon, South Korea, as scientists and government representatives finalized details outlining our climate future.
Many would read the report’s takeaways as grim. Here are a handful:
- At current rate, warming above preindustrial levels will likely increase to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit between 2030 and 2052
- Poverty, food insecurity, heat waves and wildfire are projected to increase with warming
- Scientists expect diseases carried by mosquitoes to expand in range and season as temperatures warm
- Many cereal crops, like rice and wheat, are at the edge of their heat tolerance and will likely produce much less food as the climate warms
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But Ebi, who described herself and the other scientists working on the report as “worried optimists,” wasn’t in South Korea to grieve. She said it was important to remember that governments had requested the report during the Paris Agreement talks. Representatives from about 140 nations attended.
“I’ve never seen this level of engagement,” said Ebi, who has contributed to previous IPCC reports.
She likened the experience to a patient who has just received a difficult diagnosis.
“If you have cancer, you need the doctor to tell you how serious your cancer is and what your options are,” Ebi said. “It’s urgent emissions come down — quickly, drastically. It will require transitions in energy systems.”
In other words, the Earth’s condition is “serious,” she said, but not yet terminal.
Perhaps the most important document of the publication is the report’s summary for policymakers. It’s the handbook for what people and governments must do to limit warming, and what will happen if we don’t.
In a roughly 500-person conference room in South Korea, government officials went through the summary line-by-line. During her section of the report, scientists sat at a podium at the front of the room to answer technical questions from government officials, Ebi said.
“Every government has to agree to the wording,” Ebi said, so it’s clear and useful to implement climate policies to address the world’s ailments.
The report underlines how mere fractions of degrees could make a stark difference. In the Paris Agreement, world leaders agreed to limit warming to “well below” 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit over preindustrial levels and aim for 2.7 degrees.
According to the report:
- At 3.6 degrees, the chances of an ice-free Arctic sea in the summer increases by about 10 times
- Warmwater coral reefs will “largely disappear” if temperatures rise above 2.7 degrees
- If temperatures rise to 3.6 degrees, about 420 million more people will likely experience extreme heat waves than at 2.7 degrees
- About twice as many species of insects, plants and vertebrates are expected to lose half or more of their geographic range if temperatures warm to 3.6 degrees rather than 2.7 degrees
President Trump last June announced the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement and he’s long expressed skepticism of climate-change science.
Despite the president’s views, Ebi said the U.S. delegation in South Korea was deeply involved in the process.
When it comes to policy, “if this government decides not to do something, it asks others to step up and do more,” she said.
“China’s been stepping in for leadership on climate,” she said. And, “you can’t forget what’s going on at the state level.”
Ebi said she supports Washington state’s Initiative 1631, which aims to combat climate change by creating a carbon-fee system. The measure, which is opposed by petroleum companies, is already one of the three most-expensive initiative campaigns in state history. Supporters have raised more than $8 million for the initiative, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission’s website. Opponents have secured more than $21 million.
Ebi’s job in South Korea was to make the science clear. Back home, the politics remain murky.