Monday's release of the latest grim assessment from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes clear that global warming will continue to intensify over the coming decades and that, as a result of human inaction to curb greenhouse gas emissions, extreme weather events will continue to worsen.
In a year that has already seen deadly heat waves, raging wildfires and unprecedented flash flooding that have all been linked to rising global temperatures, there's been ample evidence to back up the IPCC's conclusions. The landmark new assessment, however, was compiled by 234 scientists and based on more than 14,000 recent studies. It concludes that human activity is largely at fault for a rise in average global temperatures of 1.1 degrees Celsius.
But humankind still has the power to keep the mercury from rising even further if a concerted effort is undertaken at once.
“If we reduce emissions to net zero by 2050, we can keep temperatures close to 1.5C,” climate scientist Valérie Masson-Delmotte said during a Monday press conference.
Other IPCC members were also quick to note that time is running out.
“Unless we make immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to 1.5C will be beyond reach,” Ko Barrett, a senior adviser for climate at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and vice chair of the IPCC, said in a statement. “Each bit of warming will intensify the impacts we are likely to see.”
While those “large-scale reductions” require a concerted government plan to curb emissions, the report also stresses that individual actions are needed, as well as a shift in the global mindset about the challenges that scientists and activists have long warned lie ahead.
“We can still avoid the worst consequences, but not if we continue like today, and not without treating the crisis like a crisis,” climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeted Monday.
While it is easy to slip into climate despair, there are steps to be taken that, though insufficient to solve the problems posed by climate change, attempt to keep the worst consequences at bay.
Eat less meat
In a 2019 report, the IPCC recommended that human beings switch to less meat-based diets in order to help forestall the worst impacts of climate change. That's largely because deforestation to accommodate cattle grazing exacerbates the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. Cows also produce methane, another potent greenhouse gas that is contributing to climate change.
“We don't want to tell people what to eat. But it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect,” Hans-Otto Pörtner, an ecologist who co-chairs the IPCC’s working groups, said of the report.
A switch to a more balanced, plant-based diet, researchers found, could reduce global carbon emissions by up to 8 billion metric tons per year.
Reduce food waste
Roughly one-third of all food produced in the world today is wasted, according to a report from the World Wildlife Fund. In addition to all the emissions caused by food production, when the waste ends up in landfills, it produces methane gas. Dramatically cutting down on that waste could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 6 to 8 percent. In the United States alone, that wasted food "generates the equivalent of 32.6 million cars' worth of greenhouse gas emissions."
"Municipal solid waste landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States, accounting for approximately 14.1 percent of these emissions in 2017," the USDA says on its website.
Adopt clean energy alternatives
A growing number of fossil fuel alternatives have become available in recent years for those lucky enough to be able to afford them. These include wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles, renewables that the Environmental Protection Agency says are "considered environmentally preferable to conventional sources and, when replacing fossil fuels, have significant potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."
As state and local governments have begun to help subsidize the costs of sources of alternative energy, the number of people who are switching over continues to grow. "Renewable energy is the fastest-growing energy source in the United States, increasing 100 percent from 2000 to 2018," the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions said in a report published in April.
Detroit's big three automakers said last week that they hoped electric vehicles would make up 50 percent of their new car sales by 2030.
Plant a lot of trees
Because trees help remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by the process of photosynthesis, it is imperative that people reverse deforestation in places like the Amazon, and plant more trees.
A 2019 study by the Crowther Lab at ETH University in Zurich found that humans could avert the worst ravages of climate change by planting a forest roughly double the size of the United States. While an effort of that magnitude would require governmental coordination, every new tree planted by individuals can be seen as a step along the way, just as each additional acre of deforestation worsens that particular climate feedback loop.
Cut down on flying
While plane travel currently accounts for upwards of 4 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, the United Nations projects that carbon emissions from airplanes will triple worldwide by 2050.
Citing statistics such as the fact that a one-way flight from New York to London emits 1 ton of carbon dioxide per passenger, more than citizens of many countries emit over an entire year, climate activists like Thunberg are urging people to use other means of travel.
While most U.S. airlines have pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, getting to that goal will be tricky, absent new technological breakthroughs.
Experts say that if you must fly, the following steps can help reduce your carbon footprint: Fly economy so as to maximize efficiency, take direct flights to minimize excessive emissions during takeoff and landing, and book daytime flights to cut down on creating heat-trapping contrail and cirrus clouds at night.
Weatherize your home
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 25 to 30 percent of home heating and cooling is lost through faulty home windows. Drafty doors, leaky roofs, poor insulation and other deficiencies also account for energy loss that adds up over time. Fixing those problems, while potentially expensive initially, can end up saving money — as well as cut down on emissions — over the long term.
“The use of energy-efficient materials and other flexible, durable upgrades — including weatherization — can reduce climate risks and costs,” a recent report from the Brookings Institution found. “Doing so can also promote a safer, more equitable environment, particularly for lower-income households and communities of color who are often most vulnerable to climate change.”
Vote with climate change in mind
The climate crisis didn't happen overnight. It came about thanks to more than a century of human beings adding greenhouse gases to the Earth's atmosphere. Since a single carbon atom can last in the atmosphere for up to 1,000 years, the problem won't be easy to fix.
Participatory governments create the opportunity to elect leaders who take the threat of climate change seriously. A 2021 report from the bipartisan Center for American Progress found that “there are still 139 elected officials in the 117th Congress, including 109 representatives and 30 senators, who refuse to acknowledge the scientific evidence of human-caused climate change.” While a partisan divide on climate change remains evident, a growing number of Republicans, such as those on the newly launched Conservative Climate Caucus, are attempting to educate members of their party on the need to take action.
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