UN releases landmark climate change report

Graphic by Kinsey Ratzman ’21

Graphic by Kinsey Ratzman ’21


Two weeks ago, the United Nations released a landmark report on the near future effects of climate change. According to an article published in the New York Times, the study predicts that, with its current trajectory, the planet will experience an overall temperature increase of 2.7 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2040, and possibly sooner. While many climate scientists previously assumed that the most devastating effects of climate change would not occur until the planet’s temperature reached 3.6 degrees above pre-industrial levels, this study suggests that these effects will occur with a 2.7 degree increase.

This means that the world has only a few years to change its actions at a global level to mitigate catastrophe, including severe droughts and coastal flooding, both of which would contribute to poverty and mass displacement of human populations, as well as species loss among plants and animals.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) authored a report explaining that it is theoretically possible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. According to a press release by the IPCC, even the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius would mean a difference in global sea level rise of 10 cm.

A change between 1 and 2 degrees Celsius would also result in less coastline loss and mean fewer island communities have to worry about dangerous flooding. Some of the planet’s coral reefs would survive, and the Arctic would experience less ice melt, although it would still experience occasional ice-free summers.

Just because it is scientifically possible for the effects of climate change to lessen does not mean that it is politically likely, especially with an administration in the White House which has openly doubted the existence of human-caused climate change and trumpeted its support for the coal industry. According to the IPCC, in order to restrict warming to 1.5 degrees, “global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050.” This means “unprecedented” changes in all levels of industry, including transportation to agriculture, as well as changes to individual behavior on a huge scale. Carbon-capture technologies, which remove carbon from the air and store it, might be used to undo the effects of emissions and lower the planet’s temperature even if the planet warms by more than 1.5 degrees, though these technologies have not yet been widely tested. This is not an issue restricted to the U.S. either; any solution to delay the effects of climate change must be a global one.

Between the dire warnings of the IPCC and the political difficulty of effecting a solution, many are scared for the future. Emma Goldin ’21 addressed these concerns. “As someone from California who has been through multiple droughts and wildfires, I don’t want my state to keep going through these catastrophes,” she said. “I would say that I’m scared.” Goldin said that she has friends and family in both California and Arizona whose lives and property were threatened by fires.

On an individual level, an environmental organization at Mount Holyoke called Students for Zero Waste provides an opportunity to learn about lifestyle changes that anyone can make to lower their carbon footprint.

“We are planning a lot more educational campaigns and the report will definitely factor into that,” said Naomi Brown ’21, a member of Zero Waste.

While the report may be shocking, immediate action could result in a chance for recovery. According to National Geographic, “the models are also conservative when it comes to the roll out of new technology,” including electric vehicles and solar-powered devices. Besides that, the future may rely on nature’s oldest carbon-capture device: forests. Curtailing deforestation and planting new trees would be an immense help towards lowering the planet’s net emissions. In the long run, however, the biggest step towards a healthy and stable future lies in the hands of big petrochemical corporations, who must either cease to exist or convert entirely to producing green power in the next 30 years.

For people who are searching for a way to get involved, the Mount Holyoke Climate Justice Coalition released a joint statement: “As an organization, [we] support collectivized direct action,” they said. “Now more than ever, corporations and institutions such as Mount Holyoke have a responsibility to take larger collective action such as removing investments from the fossil fuel industry.”

When asked what they’d like to say to worried students, the CJC cited a quote from Twitter user @prisonculture, who said “let this radicalize you rather than lead you to despair.” The CJC urges students to “participate in direct action to the extent that you are able and do more than just vote. Inform yourself about intersectional climate justice and participate in local and global efforts.”