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Three (Hopeful!) Takeaways From The UN’s Climate Change Report : Short Wave – NPR

MADDIE SOFIA, BYLINE: You’re listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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EMILY KWONG, HOST:

Hey, Becky Hersher.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Hey, Emily Kwong.

KWONG: So there’s been a lot of climate science news recently.

HERSHER: Yeah, totally. This summer has been really busy for climate reporters like me. So it feels like there have just been nonstop weather disasters, right?

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: High heat will reach beyond the desert this week.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Parts of Greece as wildfires continue to burn out of control.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Heavy flooding is also affecting parts of India.

HERSHER: And then on top of that, there was this huge climate science report published by the United Nations last week.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: It says the following. Climate change is accelerating. Humans must cut greenhouse gas emissions now, or some of the changes we are seeing to the earth will be permanent.

HERSHER: And the big takeaway from that report was that humans are causing a lot of this extreme weather by emitting greenhouse gases and that we’re running out of time to avoid truly catastrophic global warming this century.

KWONG: Yeah. I think the word was unequivocal. The report said, quote, “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.” And, Becky, scientists don’t reach for a word like that out of the blue, you know?

HERSHER: Right.

KWONG: Like, reading that, I mean, I’ve known for a long time that human action is hurting the climate. But to read in such blunt terms words like catastrophic and unequivocal, it made me both angry and just want to go back to bed, even though I know.

HERSHER: Yes.

KWONG: I already knew it is really that bad.

HERSHER: Yes, I totally feel that way. And I write about climate change every day, you know? But one strange thing about these big, international reports is that they don’t really have any new information. Like, scientists who write them are summarizing the best, most current research around climate change.

KWONG: Yeah.

HERSHER: So in theory, if you cover climate science, like I do, you shouldn’t be surprised or alarmed by a report like this. And yet there is something about seeing the warnings laid out all together that’s really alarming.

KWONG: Yeah.

HERSHER: So I wanted to talk to you and to the SHORT WAVE family about some key takeaways from this report that can hopefully help everyone feel a little bit less despair because this report is not saying that humans should throw in the towel; you know, it’s saying the opposite, that there are a bunch of options and that we just need to collectively choose one that saves us and future generations from added pain and suffering.

KWONG: I am so ready for this Becky Hersher fireside chat. I could use some anti-despair climate energy.

HERSHER: (Laughter).

KWONG: All right, so today on the show, Becky is going to tell us three things to know about the future of climate change and why all three of them should feel like kind of good news.

I’m Emily Kwong.

HERSHER: And I’m Rebecca Hersher.

KWONG: And you’re listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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KWONG: Becky, the main thing I took away from the big U.N. climate report last week was that climate change is accelerating, which is really scary because it makes it feel like we’re running out of time to control the speed and severity of global warming.

HERSHER: Yeah, totally. And we can put some terrifying numbers behind that scary feeling, right? So the Earth is already almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than it was in the late 1800s. The rate of warming since 1970 is the fastest in 2,000 years. The same goes for sea level rise; it’s accelerated since the 1970s.

KWONG: Yikes.

HERSHER: But the science also makes it clear that it is not too late to control global warming. So we’re living through a really exciting moment because everything that humans do now when it comes to climate change will have impacts for the rest of our lives.

KWONG: But why is that? Like, why should this moment feel exciting instead of dreadful?

HERSHER: (Laughter) Oh, well, to be clear, it can feel both ways.

KWONG: Like a good climate therapist. OK, go on.

HERSHER: (Laughter) Yes. But here’s the case for why it’s exciting. So the Earth is on track for catastrophic warming right now. So if humans don’t cut greenhouse gases quickly, we could see 5, 6, even 7 feet of sea level rise on average by the end of the century. But the flip side of that is that if humans do basically stop burning oil and gas and coal this decade and next decade, then that doesn’t happen.

And, yeah, that’s going to be really, really hard. But under that scenario, sea levels rise a lot more slowly, and they max out at maybe a foot, which is a huge difference, right? If we’re thinking about kids who are in elementary school right now in coastal cities all around the world, we’d be saving them from life-changing sea level rise. The same goes for other impacts from climate change. You know, if adults alive today can manage to virtually stop burning fossil fuels in the next 20 years or so, life looks a lot less polluted, a lot less dangerous for kids who are alive today.

KWONG: I love how you are framing this. It’s so true. And I can see why that feels exciting. It’s not that often that the positive impacts of something are so plain, you know?

HERSHER: Exactly. And the U.N. report really backs this up. You know, the scientists who wrote it described multiple scenarios where humans cut emissions quickly enough to keep global warming well below that famous 2-degree Celsius threshold that the Paris Agreement is aiming for. That’s about 3 1/2 degrees Fahrenheit. And I should say my colleagues on NPR’s climate team, Lauren Sommer and Dan Charles, they have both done excellent reporting about how the U.S. specifically could help achieve this.

KWONG: On this very podcast, in fact.

HERSHER: Yes (laughter).

KWONG: You and Lauren, you did that story on the climate promises of the Biden administration. Dan looked at climate justice in Cleveland. We’ll put the links to those episodes in the show notes. But here’s the first takeaway I’m gathering from the report from you is that it’s not too late to take actions.

HERSHER: Yes.

KWONG: All right. What’s next?

HERSHER: So the next one sounds bad, but, again, I think it’s secretly kind of hopeful.

KWONG: OK.

HERSHER: So the second takeaway is that humans are definitely causing more extreme weather.

KWONG: Yeah. I mean, it’s not a theory anymore. It’s, like, established truth at this point.

HERSHER: Yes, exactly. Burning fossil fuels is directly causing longer, more intense heat waves and droughts, heavier rainstorms, more powerful hurricanes, more damaging wildfires. But I really loved this part of the U.N. report because it is so clear. You know, for decades, scientists have been trying to express what is known about the impacts of burning fossil fuels. And it’s hard because the Earth is really big and really complicated.

KWONG: Yeah. In fact, isn’t this a whole branch of science, attribution science – basically, the study of whether climate change may be responsible for extreme weather events. And it’s complicated stuff to actually attribute something to climate change.

HERSHER: Exactly. And, you know, there’s always uncertainty in science. We talk about this a lot on this podcast. And when it comes to climate science, there’s been a lot of tension between that innate statistical uncertainty and the need for conclusive evidence to help humans act and stop burning fossil fuels. So when I read this report, I was really heartened to see that climate science has advanced to the point where the uncertainty is really small. And part of that is sad. We’ve let global warming progress so much that we can see it happening with our own eyes. But part of it is really impressive, right? Scientists have made huge leaps in their understanding. They can see the fingerprints of climate change on individual hurricanes and heat waves. It’s really amazing, and it means a lot more certainty.

KWONG: And this certainty is good when you’re talking about totally transforming the economy in order to stop burning oil and gas and coal.

HERSHER: Exactly. Bingo. Less uncertainty is a good thing for policymakers.

KWONG: OK. Becky Hersher, what is the third thing you want to talk about?

HERSHER: So the third takeaway is about how humans adapt to a hotter earth. One thing that really stuck out to me about this report was the scary fact that some impacts of climate change are unavoidable. And this is obvious when you think about it because the climate has already changed, right? We’re all living through this summer with its heat waves and drought and wildfires and floods here in the U.S. These are all exacerbated by climate change.

KWONG: Yeah. I was also thinking about this when you were talking about sea level rise earlier because even if we cut greenhouse gas emissions to zero today, you taught us that sea levels would keep rising slowly until the middle of the century. We’ve talked about this lag on the show before.

HERSHER: Right. And the new report confirms this. So no matter what, we’re all going to live on a hot planet for the next few decades at least. And the question is whether these will be our last few decades of warming.

KWONG: Oh, our last few decades – that’s powerful.

HERSHER: Yeah.

KWONG: It requires us to take action now, though, and reverse course, knowing that warming will continue for a while, even if we are able to act.

HERSHER: Yeah. And the thing that I really appreciate about this part of the report is that it actually allows governments to plan for that future – right? – to help people adapt.

KWONG: Right. Like, if I know that summers like this one are par for the course, that means cities need to make plans to keep vulnerable people cool during heat waves and build houses in places that won’t burn. It all goes back to certainty, like you said.

HERSHER: Yeah, exactly. And this report is so comprehensive, it covers the whole world. It breaks down the climate impacts by region for the first time, which is a really big deal because a lot of countries don’t have the resources to publish their own climate assessments, which means they’re making decisions in the dark. So for example, sea levels – they’re rising at really different rates depending on where you live, so you need that kind of regional information in order to make decisions. And I think that’s a really exciting thing about this report and about how much climate science can help drive climate policies – right? – that actually protect people from the global warming that’s inevitable.

KWONG: Yeah. All right, Becky, last question – should I read this report in its entirety? I mean, it just seems…

HERSHER: (Laughter).

KWONG: No, really. It seems – you laugh, but it seems kind of mandatory to being a human on this planet right now to know what we’re doing to it.

HERSHER: I get that. You do not need to read this report. It’s very, very long. You know, I’m biased, but listening to this podcast episode is probably sufficient.

KWONG: Well, thank you for wading through all that material, and there will be more reports like it. I mean, the United Nations is supposed to come out with two more in the next year. So I’m wondering, as a climate reporter, how can we take the momentum of this moment to prepare ourselves for more sobering reports to come?

HERSHER: Yeah. I think that’s a good question. And I think that is the goal – to take the feelings of this moment and bring them into the future because, like you said, this is not the last time scientists are going to make us feel scared, nor is it the last time they should. So I think trying to bring a sense of hopefulness into the future, remind ourselves that we do have agency as humans and we’ve never had more certainty than we do now about how our actions affect the Earth. And the thing I can promise is that I’ll be back here to help you do that.

KWONG: We’ll be counting on it. Thanks for coming to talk to the SHORT WAVE fam and also providing some climate therapy, too, Becky.

HERSHER: Yeah. Thanks.

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KWONG: This episode was produced by Thomas Lu, edited by Viet Le and fact-checked by Indi Khera. The audio engineer for this episode was Kwesi Lee. I’m Emily Kwong, and thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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