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Don’t panic: Reasons for hope despite a grim UN climate report

© Heng Wang

As a conservation scientist, Will Turner is used to fielding technical questions about climate change. 

Lately, it’s the emotional ones that are getting his attention.

In a thread posted recently on Twitter, Turner shared some of the visceral reactions he has seen to a recent United Nations climate report that sounded the grimmest alarm yet on the intensifying effects of climate change. For the first time, the report stated unequivocally that “human influence has warmed the atmosphere, oceans and land” and that in the coming years, average global tem-peratures will almost surely rise by 1.5 degrees C (2.7 F) — the limit at which runaway climate change will begin to upend life as we know it. 

Turner, a senior scientist at Conservation International, characterized the report in a series of tweets as a “punch in the gut” and reminded readers that “there is no longer any scientific cover for those who use uncertainty as an excuse to do nothing.” 

Conservation News spoke with Turner about why the UN report was extraordinary, why climate change is on people’s minds like never before, and, naturally, what any of us can do about it.

Question: You recently wrote about the emotional reactions some have had to the new UN report on climate. Why do you think it made some people panic? 

Answer: Many people are taking a thoughtful look at real evidence of climate change in front of us and feeling a lot of things — despair, powerlessness, sadness, anger, failure. Humankind is no stranger to tragedy and hardship, but in modern society many of us have the sense of being comfortably distanced from environmental catastrophe. And that’s getting exposed as an illusion. People are waking up to evidence of climate change in their daily lives — a wall of fire down the street, flooding in their hometowns or price spikes at the supermarket. All of this is suddenly real in a way that it hasn’t been before. We’re entering an era where all regions are at risk. Moreover, some of the most vulnerable communities are also the least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. 

So, the report by the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is backing up what people are seeing firsthand. It states with scientific credibility that we are unequivocally responsible for warming the planet and that catastrophe is not looming in some imagined future, it is here and now. That’s a justifiably frightening thing. 

Q: What sets this report apart from previous analyses? 

A: The report itself is extraordinary. It’s 4,000 pages long and synthesizes 14,000 climate studies. Scientists from 195 countries had to agree on every single line, reflecting a tremendous level of consensus. In many ways, the report underscores what many Indigenous peoples, coastal communities, youth activists and scientists have been saying for years. It would be a mistake to say its findings are entirely new. 

But this report goes considerably further. Scientists now agree that we’ll hit a 1.5-degree Celsius (2.7-degree Fahrenheit) temperature increase in the next few decades. And the report looks more at climate “tipping points,” dramatic changes we won’t be able to reverse — from abrupt forest dieback to the melting of Greenland’s ice sheets. 

Q: No wonder people are scared. Has the window closed for us to do something about it?

A: Not yet. Science tells us that the path we choose in the next few years really matters. But our window to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change is closing. And what do you do when your last window is closing? You fight like hell.

Look, we can do this. The last time the IPCC published a report, back in 2013, it became the driving force behind the Paris Agreement, where more than 190 countries agreed to a global framework for addressing climate change. Imagine that! When else have 190 countries come together in a way like this? We must take the warnings in this new report just as seriously. At this point, inaction due to uncertainty is scientifically unjustifiable, and inaction due to hopelessness is indefensible. We can still make a difference, but we must act now. 

Q: So, how do we implement the changes needed to stabilize the climate? 

A: Here’s the upside — we know what needs to happen. The solutions are well within our reach. We must dramatically and immediately decarbonize our energy and industry sectors. We must also protect, restore and better manage the planet’s ecosystems. Reversing nature loss could account for roughly 30 percent of global action needed to stabilize our climate. And we need to pursue new technologies that could help remove carbon that’s already in the atmosphere. Investing in these solutions could change our climate trajectory. 

Beyond that, what we do as individuals matters. Don’t leave it up to others. We must have the determination to act — looking at our own direct climate impacts and finding the places where we can make a difference — particularly in the choices we make around air travel and diet. And remember, we’re in a climate emergency due to systemic problems, so use your voice to drive systemic solutions — as a citizen, a voter, an employee, a shareholder. 

And get involved directly. For example, many people are turning their climate concern into a career path. I started out in the tech sector before switching to what I do now. We’re going to fight like hell. Most of all we’re going to do it together.

As I see people around the world — especially younger generations — working together to drive these changes, I choose to remain optimistic.


Will McCarry is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.

Cover image: Sunrise among the mountains in Turpan city, China (© Heng Wang)

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