The news on the climate front keeps getting worse.
Regarding the report released Monday by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, the headlines paint a dire picture: “Code Red for humanity,” was CNN’s banner for its coverage, quoting UN Secretary-General António Guterres; “Humans have pushed the climate into ‘unprecedented’ territory,” was how The Washington Post topped its story; “A Hotter Future Is Certain, Climate Panel Warns. But How Hot Is Up to Us,” warned The New York Times’ analysis.
All noted that even if nations of the world acted immediately to curb greenhouse gas emissions, enough damage is already done to guarantee a 1.5-degree Celsius rise in average global temperatures, or about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit hotter.
The consequences of not rapidly and permanently cutting emissions, as The Post reported, are “increasingly catastrophic impacts.”
As we reported last year, North Carolina’s Climate Science Advisory Council’s 2020 assessment predicted warmer and wetter conditions with more flooding statewide and with coastal areas as risk from rising seas and increasingly frequent heavy downpours. At the time, our Kirk Ross interviewed State Climatologist Katie Dello about the report. She made it clear then that change was already happening.
“We’re feeling climate change now, so we don’t get to the luxury of talking about this as a future problem anymore,” she said. “It’s here in North Carolina. It’s here in our backyard and we’re seeing it through the sea level rise and extreme downpours.”
The IPCC’s summary of its findings for policymakers bears that out: “Human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2000 years.” Some of the changes already happening, including sea level rise, are irreversible.
In 2019, atmospheric CO2 concentrations were higher than at any time in at least 2 million years, according to the summary, and concentrations of other greenhouse gases were higher than at any time in at least 800,000 years.
Global mean sea level has risen faster since 1900 than during any century in at least the last 3,000 years
Each of the last four decades has been successively warmer than any decade that preceded it since 1850.
It is likely that human behavior contributed to changing rainfall patterns since the mid-20th century, and mid-latitude storm tracks have shifted toward the poles in both hemispheres since the 1980s.
The scientists say it is virtually certain that oceans have warmed just since the 1970s and it is extremely likely that human influence is the main driver. It is also virtually certain that human-caused CO2 emissions are the main driver of ocean acidification.
Coastal cities, towns and villages “are particularly affected” by climatic factors that have already changed and will continue to change, whatever happens with regard to emissions. That means increases in extreme heat, flooding rainstorms, coastal erosion and coastal flooding. Increasing relative sea levels are compounding the flood problems associated with storm surge and intense rainfall.
There’s still much we can do to limit the damage. As the Times phrased it, “humanity can still prevent the planet from getting even hotter.” Doing so will require what the IPCC report describes as “strong and sustained reductions” in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. And even then, it could take two to three decades before global temperatures stabilize. But we will have at least taken steps to lessen the damage that would otherwise only be worse for our children and grandchildren.
And while there’s no silver lining, North Carolina, which still has a reputation for climate change denialism, has begun slowly moving in the right direction. As Coastal Review has reported in detail, debate here has shifted over the past decade from whether to do something to what should be done.
Officials released in 2020 the North Carolina Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan as a comprehensive guide for addressing the risks of climate change to the state’s infrastructure and economy. The plan was hailed for addressing both the causes and effects and providing planning tools for local governments.
Also, the legislature has in recent sessions advanced bills that reflect a more comprehensive approach to flooding and stormwater management.
The House budget plan for the next two years would boost funding for the state’s Land and Water Fund and and other conservation programs with nearly $2 billion for flood prevention, resiliency and stormwater and wastewater infrastructure.
Meanwhile, new federal infrastructure and climate initiatives promise an even larger flow of funds if the state has programs in place to take advantage of it.
While these efforts offer numerous reasons for optimism, as the IPCC report states, the time to act on resiliency and the kind of carbon reductions that will truly make an impact for the next generation is now.
As we look ahead to the prospects outlined in the report and the state’s risk assessment, we know that what we do in the immediate future will have an impact on what the next generations face.
At Coastal Review, our role is not just to report on the impacts of the climate crisis, but to critically examine the plans, the science and proposed solutions in detail and to take a clear-eyed approach to the decisions at the state, federal and local levels that will affect our region and, ultimately, our planet.