Climate change is becoming irreversible and the world, including Washington state, is not doing enough to stop it.
That was one of many takeaways among local authors of a sobering report published Monday by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in which the world’s leading climate scientists provided the latest research on how ecosystems — both our own and those of other species — are being affected by warming temperatures, and how to mitigate and adapt to those changes.
Humanity and the natural world are being pushed beyond their threshold for adaptation, experts say, and Washington state is no exception.
“It’s just like the rest of the world,” said Kristie Ebi, one of the report’s lead authors and a professor of global environmental change and health at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health. “And we know that our ability as a state to manage these extreme events is not where it needs to be.”
Mitigation and adaptation to human-induced or anthropogenic climate change are crucial in all efforts to reduce and eventually eliminate harmful emissions.
Washington’s Legislature has pledged to reduce emissions 25% compared with 1990 levels by 2035, though the Department of Ecology urged states to aim for a reduction of 40% in the same time frame.
The passing in 2021 of the Climate Commitment Act introduced a plan to reduce carbon pollution using, among other things, a cap-and-invest program to offset greenhouse gas emissions. The program takes effect on Jan. 1, 2023.
The construction of more efficient buildings and the electrification of the transportation system are pillars of the state’s overarching campaign to counteract irreversible climate change.
Washington state deserves “pretty high marks” on its efforts to mitigate climate change, but less so when it comes to adaptive measures, such as electrifying transportation or the establishment of an emission trade scheme, most of which are still in the planning or implementation stages in Washington, said Jeremy Hess, another lead author of the report as well as a professor of environmental and occupations health sciences in the UW School of Medicine, and director of the university’s Center for Health and the Global Environment.
“It’s a hard thing to make all these transformative changes really quickly and make sure the changes don’t have unintended consequences that are harmful to vulnerable communities,” he said. “There’s a delicate balance.”
Last year in June, a blistering “heat dome” triggered record-breaking temperatures in Washington, Oregon and parts of British Columbia. Attributive scientific analyses found it was a “once in a millennium” event made 150 times likelier by climate change.
In recent years marine heat waves triggering ecological imbalances along the Pacific coast have become more frequent, and coastal flooding in and around Puget Sound has drawn more concern from the scientific community amid projections of accelerating sea level rise.
“Climate change impacts in North America have been occurring faster and will become more severe much sooner than we had previously thought,” Sherilee Harper, one of the report’s lead authors, said during a news briefing Sunday morning.
Thanks, in part, to severe weather events like heat waves, wildfires, flooding and droughts, Harper said North Americans are becoming increasingly aware of the devastating impacts of climate change, but misinformation is leading to uncertainty in public recognition, and to delays in much needed policies.
The new report represents the IPCC’s second installment of its sixth assessment report. The first installment by the first working group, which was published last August, focused on the connection between human activity and global warming.
Regarding the first installment, IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee said Monday that it “showed unequivocally that human activities have warmed the planet at a rate not seen in the past 2,000 years.”
The latest installment, which delves into how humanity and the natural world are adapting to climate change, is “a dire warning about the consequences of inaction,” Lee said. “The stakes for our planet have never been higher.”
The impacts of environmental change on mental health gained unprecedented recognition in the second installment with a chapter devoted to the topic. Attributive science — which is used to measure the direct impact of specific severe weather events — also made significant headway thanks to improved data sets and better technology. And, for the first time ever according to lead authors, colonialism was referenced as a cause for environmental vulnerability in marginalized communities.
The 3,500-page document written by 270 researchers from 67 countries relays in bleak but comprehensive detail the extent to which warming is affecting the planet today, and how the situation will almost surely worsen in the near future.
Greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced 45% by 2030 and eliminated completely by 2050 compared with preindustrial levels to prevent average global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to the Paris Agreement, an international treaty signed by 196 parties in 2015 that took effect in November 2016.
A temperature increase of that magnitude, scientists say, could cause several natural systems to reach a “tipping point” and trigger the deterioration of the planet’s most crucial ecosystems.
And yet, not only have average global temperatures already risen 1.09 degrees Celsius according to lead authors of the new report, global emissions are set to increase almost 14% by the end of the decade and only 20 governments have agreed to stop funding the development of coal-fired energy abroad, according to U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, who spoke during a news conference Monday.
“That spells catastrophe,” he said. The U.N. is urging those nations and others to not only halt investments in coal power abroad, but to dismantle their domestic systems at home as well. “Coal and other fossil fuels are choking humanity.”
This year world leaders will convene at the Group of 7 Leader’s Summit slated to take place in Germany in June, the G20 Summit in Indonesia in October, and the U.N. Climate Change Conference — or COP27 — in Egypt in November.
“Adaptation and mitigation must be pursued with equal force and urgency,” Guterres said. “Delay means death.”