Over the summer, I decided against a jog in Hudson River Park after reading that Manhattan was engulfed in an intense heat wave, with temperatures rising to what forecasters estimated felt like 105 degrees Fahrenheit. And three weeks ago, Penn canceled all university operations, including classes, due to flooding from Hurricane Ida. For the most part, this is frankly the extent of my experience with climate change. It appears in headlines, and when this crisis does land on my doorstep, it is limited to minor inconveniences rather than calamities.
It is this privilege — shared by millions around the world — that facilitates a detachment from global warming, undermines climate science, and empowers climate skeptics. As long as we are not the ones fighting for our lives — fleeing inundated homes or struggling to put food on the table during a drought — the urgency of this disaster will never truly be apparent to us.
The least we can do is absorb the most pertinent information and advocate for the most appropriate solutions.
On Aug. 9, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its sixth assessment report since 1990, written by 234 authors and approved by 195 national governments. A 3,949-page document, it is the global community’s most comprehensive summary of our current understanding of the climate crisis, relying on evidence from more than 14,000 studies. In addition to reaffirming the conclusions from previous IPCC reports, raising “medium confidence” statements to “high confidence” ones, it sheds light on several new findings that change the way we view the trajectory of our planet. If they do not elicit a stark feeling of foreboding, almost nothing will.
Studies estimate that the planet was 1.09 degrees Celsius warmer from 2011 to 2020 than from 1850 to 1900. Such a rise in global temperatures can be attributed to the approximately 2,400 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions since pre-industrial times. The report estimates that we can afford only 500 billion more tonnes for even a chance to stem this damage, one of the many goals identified in the Paris Agreement. At our current pace, the global rise in temperature will likely rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius in just 15 years.
In practice, that would require every country to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and virtually eliminate them by 2050. With what the countries of the world are currently promising, we will far exceed the 1.5 degrees Celsius mark, potentially moving towards 2.0 degrees. However costly the complete transition to renewables in the United States may be, it will need to occur at some point. Until then, Penn students should start implementing more sustainable practices at home, such as using more cold water, less air conditioning, and more recycled products.
On an even more bleak note, due to the chemical nature of atmospheric carbon dioxide, it takes a considerable amount of time to dissipate. As such, even if we were to reduce net emissions to zero tomorrow, we are locked into three more decades of global warming. For the foreseeable future, Penn can start to expect more climate change disasters like Hurricane Ida, except in higher frequency and higher intensity. We are traveling down an inescapable path toward climate extremes — rising sea levels, retreating glaciers, heavy rainfall, long-lasting droughts, intense heat waves — and there is nothing we can do about it.
All of the IPCC’s ominous projections raise significant questions about what the appropriate course of action is. Each country clearly needs to reconsider its environmental policy in light of these findings; virtue signaling through marginal cuts to emissions is pitifully inadequate to avoid the disastrous consequences of the climate crisis. Beyond this, the report introduces another public policy consideration: increased action on methane. While total U.S. methane emissions in 2019 were an eighth of its carbon dioxide emissions, methane’s atmospheric half-life is shorter than that of carbon dioxide, lasting less than a decade. What this means is that any decrease in atmospheric methane would pay off more quickly. Such measures, in addition to countless others, could put a hamper on the dangerously rapid pace at which we are approaching the 1.5-degree mark.
At the end of the day, the difficulty of climate advocacy stems from how distant this crisis appears to be. What we gain from arduously working to halt climate change is avoiding an unfathomable dystopia and merely continuing the status quo. Moreover, most of this column points the finger at governments, not individuals.
However, the benefits of sacrificing our own convenience will undoubtedly manifest themselves during our lifetime. We are at an inflection point, and corrective action cannot be taken when it is too late. Attend events held by on-campus student groups related to environmentalism. Question whether Penn can do more than cutting emissions. At the very least, stay aware and acknowledge that we have been warned.
ANDY YOON is a College and Wharton sophomore from Seoul, South Korea. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.