On Feb. 27, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released another report on our changing environment and the impact of climate change. Created by the United Nations (UN), the IPCC is an international working group dedicated to the analysis and synthesis of climate science, in order to make policy recommendations for governments around the world. When you see people talking about what “1.5°C of warming would look like” or what “one meter of sea level rise would do,” the IPCC are the scientists who tell us these data. The IPCC is made up of groups that study the mechanisms of global warming, its effects and potential mitigation strategies. This is truly a global effort from a group of experts and officials from all around the world who are dedicated to solving the climate crisis.
The most recent report, published by the IPCC in February, is a part of the sixth climate assessment that the IPCC has undertaken, and throughout the rest of 2022 other parts of the report focused on physical change and resiliency will be released. This report, however, focuses on “Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.” The full report is 3,675 pages long, so it’s pretty in-depth, to say the least.
The central theme of this report is positive feedback loops. A positive feedback loop is just a fancy way to say the snowball effect: as a snowball rolls down a hill, it gets faster and larger and even faster and even larger. For a long time, climate scientists have recognized positive feedback loops in how the Earth is warming.
An example of a positive feedback loop would be the melting of polar ice, where a hotter climate melts more ice and the loss of more ice means the loss of bright, white, shiny surface that reflects heat from the sun back into space. Called the albedo effect, this process means that as more ice melts, the Earth will warm more quickly, and as the Earth warms more quickly, more ice will melt.
In a broader sense, human society drives climate change, and climate change puts more stress on human society, driving even more climatic change. The IPCC wants to highlight this point here in their sixth report, that just as we need to curb our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, we also need to be ready for harsher storms, increased droughts and rising sea levels, among a host of other impacts. Decision makers need to put these risks into our calculus on climate change; they must recognize the severity of the situation at hand.
While urgent global action is needed to reduce GHG emissions that cause climate change, we must also recognize that nations pollute and feel the effects of climate change differently. According to the IPCC, 3.3 to 3.6 billion people live in contexts that are especially vulnerable to climate change, and these more vulnerable people are often not the ones responsible for the majority of GHG emissions. The intersecting variables of marginality including race, class, gender, indigeneity, nationality and historical and current patterns of colonialism all increase an individual’s risk to the impacts of climate change.
At the international level, many countries in the Global South have been and continue to be shaped by colonial relationships that bring value to Global North nations that are also responsible for the majority of GHG emissions. An example of one of these relationships may be in the Amazon Rainforest. According to Economist and Geographer Rachel Garrett, the Brazilian Amazon continues to be slashed and burned to create more pasture for cattle in order to meet the demand for beef that exists in “developed nations.” This exponentially increases GHG production because rainforests are such an important way to store and sequester CO2, on top of the fact that this land is being replaced with intensive and flatulent cattle operations. Clearly, there is a significant intersection between processes in human society that also have these positive-feedback-looping effects.
It should be no surprise to us all to say that the leaders of governments around the world have not done enough to address climate change. The IPCC hopes to spur action with this new report, and with reviews of the report like this, to demonstrate the many ways that climate change poses a threat. Leaders are not the only ones who have agency to make a difference, and change will have to occur at every level from the national to the individual. We need to pressure politicians to enact stronger climate legislation, but we also need to do things like eat less meat, as stated by Project Drawdown. The solution is within each and every one of us.