The sixth assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is no ordinary publication. Its 4,000 pages were written by hundreds of independent scientists from 66 countries. It was commissioned by 195 governments and all of them signed off on the conclusions after reviewing them line by line and word by word. These governments, whether supportive, ambivalent or hostile to climate action, now own the messages in the report. So what does it say?
The report concludes that there is now “unequivocal” evidence that human actions are changing our climate. Behind this are alarming findings. The burning of fossil fuels and deforestation has led to levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that are higher today than at any time in the past 2 million years. Alongside methane and other greenhouse gases, this has driven Earth to be warmer than at any point in the past 125,000 years. The impacts of this can be seen in the loss of Arctic sea ice, accelerating sea level rise, hotter and more frequent heatwaves, increased and more frequent extreme rainfall events and, in some regions, more intense droughts and fires.
As scientists, we can now clearly and unambiguously join all the dots, linking these “climate-impact drivers” back to global heating and carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use. Today’s global temperature rise of 1.1C above pre-industrial levels confirms the predictions of climate scientists more than 30 years ago. The increases in heatwaves and extreme rainfall events were also long foreseen. Those in power may have heard the warnings in previous reports, but they did not listen.
The current wave of devastation from heatwaves, fires and floods is causing misery across the world. Even the world’s wealthiest countries, such as Canada and Germany, are woefully ill-prepared for the escalating effects of the climate crisis. Destructive events are the consequences of failing to act on past warnings. As a result, the climate emergency is no longer a future hypothesis: it is with us here and now.
Global emissions of carbon dioxide are rising again after their temporary fall during the Covid lockdowns. According to the International Energy Authority, unless new policies are enforced, CO2 emissions will probably hit record levels in 2023. And, as if that were not enough bad news, extreme heatwaves, rainfall events and droughts will get worse until carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions are reduced to zero.
It is hard to make sense of all this. How do we even think of a time as hot as 125,000 years ago? At that point, humans were coexisting with Neanderthals. As much carbon dioxide as two million years ago? Our species hadn’t even evolved by then. It is no wonder these incredible changes feel existential. But we must urgently make sense of them, and act fast.
The problem is ultimately that the use of fossil fuels is a “progress trap”. Decades ago, fossil fuels improved lives compared alternative energy sources, but now their use does the opposite, actively destroying lives and livelihoods. Fossil fuels have gone from an ingenious enabler of human progress to a trap that undermines it. The climate crisis is not caused by vague “human actions”; nor is it a result of some innate aspect of human nature. It is caused by specific investments by specific people in specific things. Change those, and we can change the future.
It may feel uncomfortable saying that fossil fuel companies, their investors and the politicians who enable them are the enemies of progress. But if we care about our collective future we need to say it, again and again, without flinching: using fossil fuels today is destroying our future.
The fossil fuel industry is a powerful and complex enemy. Historically, it is where the world’s most influential lobbyists have worked. Their efforts have secured subsidies, military campaigns and a free licence to pollute, all justified in the name of access to fossil energy. Oil, coal and gas are also intimately involved in our lives, from heating our homes to powering transport. There is no single policy, technological breakthrough or activist campaign that alone can help us escape this trap.
Instead we need a three-pronged attack on fossil fuels: target the industry directly, join broad social movements to secure the political changes needed to end the fossil fuel era and make changes to reduce our demand for fossil fuels. That might mean asking your pension provider to divest from fossil fuels, joining the next Extinction Rebellion protest or replacing your polluting gas cooker with a modern electric one. In this, there is a role for everyone.
What also matters is talking about the climate emergency and the urgent need to end the fossil fuel era. We should be bringing this up at home, at work, at school and with our friends. While the sweeping changes needed must ultimately come from government regulation, it is us who must demonstrate that the desire for change exists.
The new sixth assessment report was not all bad news. It included one unambiguously positive finding: the level of devastation we face is in our collective hands. If the world slashes emissions now and reduces them to net zero by 2050 we would keep the global temperature rise close to 1.5C and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
To achieve this, politicians will need to hear that the clamour of millions of people’s voices is greater than the might of the fossil fuel lobby. Governments accept the science of climate change. Now they need to be forced to act on what they know is true, and help us escape the fossil fuel progress trap.