Alarming climate change report resonates on parched, fire-scarred North Coast: ‘We know what we have to do’
A devastating report on the future of the planet released Monday by a United Nations science panel paints an alarming portrait of a deepening crisis as Earth’s surface temperatures continue to rise.
It’s too late to avoid dire consequences already visible across the globe and right here in Sonoma County, where intensifying drought and the scars of destructive wildfires tell a story of increasing weather extremes and suffering.
But substantive, sustained action taken now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can still prevent greater catastrophe, scientists concluded.
That was the key take-away highlighted by climate scientists and advocates locally and around the nation Monday, as the world digested highly anticipated findings of the nearly 4,000-page report, which drew more than 700,000 viewers to a virtual, predawn press conference.
What’s needed now is political will and urgent action, experts said.
“Climate change can be a really overwhelming issue because it’s so big, and it’s hard to understand in a lot of ways,” said Ryan Schleeter, communications director for the Santa Rosa-based Climate Center, a leading voice in local policymaking. “But my personal approach to this is to just remember that a lot of what we hear is real apocalyptic but overshadows the fact that the solutions are here. We do know what we have to do.”
The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change represents the sixth assessment of collective climate science from around the world and the first since 2013.
It says the world is heating up at an unprecedented rate, with each of the past four decades the warmest on record, since preindustrial times.
The amount of carbon already released to the atmosphere almost assures average temperatures on the Earth’s surface will reach 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above the late 1800s — the maximum limit targeted in the 2015 Paris Agreement. It’s already risen by about 1.1 degrees, scientists said.
Each additional fraction of a degree in elevated temperature increases the frequency and intensity of the extreme climate impacts, including potentially deadly heat waves, torrential rains and flooding, extended drought, sea level rise, wildfires and ocean warming, acidification and oxygen loss.
“Unless there are immediate, rapid, and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius will be beyond reach,” Valerie Masson-Delmotte, co-chair of the IPCC working group, told the press conference.
But if the world pulls together, weans itself of fossil fuels and reaches net zero carbon emissions by about 2050 it is “extremely likely” that warming can be kept “well below” 2 degrees, declining to around 1.5 degrees by the end of the century, she said.
Tessa Hill, a researcher at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Lab, studies coastal and marine sciences, including ocean acidification and other climate impacts, and said the report provides “unequivocal certainty about the direction we are heading.”
But, she said, echoing Schleeter, “We are completely capable of addressing climate change so that we can decrease future harm to people and ecosystems. Doing so will take leadership at the local, regional, national and international level. As voters, we must hold our elected officials accountable for seeing this, and acting on this information, with the urgency that it deserves.”
Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Regional Climate Protection Authority, a government coalition, said citizens should take heart in the fact that they aren’t starting from scratch. Though not enough has been achieved, the work is underway.
“But we need to a lot more, and fast,” Smith said. “We’re not mucking about. The science is very clear and very evident, and halfhearted efforts aren’t going to cut it.”
That means making personal choices whenever and wherever possible that cut greenhouse gas emissions, Smith and others said. They urged customers to opt for electric appliances, electric cars, and electricity from 100% renewable sources — available locally through Sonoma Clean Power, the public supplier.
It also means putting pressure on elected officials at every level of government to support and prioritize policies that move faster toward carbon neutrality and make alternative technology more accessible, said Schleeter.
“There isn’t one silver bullet to the climate crisis. It’s so big and it’s so complex, but it does take action at all levels of government,” he said. “But really all political leaders need to hear from folks,” which also gives them “cover to be bold,” he said.