On the face of it, the central claim of the recent IPCC Report - that human activity is having a rapid and irreversible effect on our climate - appears fairly banal. In any sane society, ascribing banality to the IPCC’s semi-apocalyptic warnings would appear a contradiction in terms. In our society, though, prophecies of flooding and drought on a Biblical scale have become routine: they’re as much a part of the news cycle as weather forecasts or sports results. Given enough time, even the most horrific concept becomes unremarkable. Subjected to enough repetition, the most dier warning can morph into a platitude.
This desensitization to even the most apocalyptic of cautions is likely to become our undoing. In a sense, the problem is that we’ve had too much time to prepare. Whereas the Pharaohs of the Book of Exodus made the inexplicable decision to disregard God’s direct threat of immediate plague and famine, our society has taken the more understandable (though equally damaging) decision to ignore gradual and evolving warnings over a number of years. Evidence which becomes stronger by degrees inevitably lacks the shock value of a sudden revelation; and, importantly, it is more easily diluted or undermined by sceptics or self-serving corporations.
What’s needed, in short, isn’t evidence, it’s impetus: we don’t need to prove the threat of climate change, we need to feel it. It’s here that its proponents feel the IPCC Report may be of some use. Its publication has certainly made waves: where the analysis of individual climate scientists often never makes it out of their
peer-reviewed echo chambers, this report has made front page news across the world. The paper has shone an international light on COP26, a conference which will now play host to the most highly anticipated climate discussions in years.
There’s no doubting the validity of the report’s findings. 4,000 pages, hundreds of climate scientists, just under a decade’s worth of research: the authors’ methods are beyond reproach. Nor is it only the strength of the evidence which is striking; the findings themselves are also powerful and uncompromising. The report sets out that global temperatures have risen by 1.1 degrees C since pre-industrial times, predicting that this could rise to 1.5C within 20 years, and that unless ‘immediate’ action is taken an increase to 2.0C will become inevitable. The jump to 2.0C would mean heat waves, droughts and rises in sea levels the likes of which have never been seen by humans, and which would pose a fundamental challenge to our collective way of life. “Some of the changes already set in motion”, suggests the report, “are [already] irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years”.
If any such report is going to catalyze the requisite urgency, it’s this one. This isn’t just a figure of speech: this is the final IPCC report which will be published before the most damaging consequences of climate change have become an inevitability. They will never get another chance. The message is clear: heed this direct and severe warning or suffer the consequences. Importantly, the IPCC’s solutions are as direct as their cautions: reach net-zero on CO2 emissions by 2050, and reduce other greenhouse gas emissions significantly.
Experts have cited this report as “a massive wake-up call” to governments around the world. There is, however, no guarantee that these policy makers won’t simply hit snooze. This may be the first IPCC report in eight years, but it’s the sixth of its kind. And although its censures are more severe than previous reports - and its call to action the most urgent - each of its predecessors contained similar claims, all stated in no uncertain terms and supported by mountains of evidence. None of these previous reports led to sufficient climate legislation from governments. In fact, the very existence of this most recent IPCC report to some extent preempts its failure: if governments were willing to listen to reason, there would be no need for a sixth call to action.
A chorus of desperate calls to action from a collection of society’s most trusted voices has never before been sufficient to catalyze meaningful climate action. Today, there’s still some hope that the IPCC report might buck this trend. But as our window of opportunity closes, and humanity fast approaches the most important collective deadline in its 200,000 year history, you can’t help but wonder whether old habits will be too tough to kick.