On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, released the synthesis of its sixth reporting cycle, a gargantuan collection of publications that spans three working groups focusing on the physical science of climate change, the impact of climate change, and climate solutions (along with a few “special reports”). This new summary hits with devastating emotional whiplash. Our struggles and actions over the past decade or so to limit emissions are having a detectable effect on the volume of planet-heating gas that’s released, the summary says. But it’s nowhere near enough: Mostly, we’re making avoidable mistakes with horrific, irreversible long-term consequences. If there is an optimistic takeaway from the report, it’s this: Every decision from here on out matters. At no point can we say the battle is conclusively lost or won.
Currently, we are on track to emit such a high volume of planet-heating gases that we’ll heat earth’s surface by more than three degrees Celsius by 2100, with results difficult to truly imagine.
This is a difficult message to absorb—an emotional roller coaster depressingly familiar to those who have been reading the prior IPCC reports as they emerged, with the wins and the losses marbled together in an infuriating and unavoidable way.
Now that we know what works, and what the consequences of failure may be, why is the most likely future one in which we bake ourselves, burning carbon we found underground? Why haven’t we already shifted into a mode of immediate action?
There are many reasons, but one of the key ones is that countries, companies, and individuals keep hitting the snooze button on the climate alarm. “Please, just another six years,” they say, throwing the blanket over their heads. You can’t really snooze the problem of an accumulating threat. It’s like water rising in a locked room from a leak in the ceiling. Sure, we managed to stop the crack in the ceiling from getting wider and letting in water at an even faster rate. But the water is still flowing in, and with each new inch, more things are lost to the deluge.
One of the most disastrous outcomes of the blend of pandemic and war in recent years has been that extractive companies largely saw their highest profits in their entire existence in 2022. Supermajors like Shell and BP feel no shame in slashing and burning their climate plans and being more open about their quest for profit, however many fossil fuels that takes. They’re finding the crack in the ceiling that activists and policymakers are desperately trying to seal, pushing us aside, and smashing the ceiling with an ax to let more water in because the flood makes them money. The metaphor is absurd, but it’s where we are.
The Biden administration’s recent decision to approve the Willow crude oil project in Alaska is a classic example of politicians caving to these executives’ wishes. The only scenarios in which carbon-bomb projects like Willow are necessary are if we’re on high fossil fuel consumption pathways that lead to nightmarish consequences like deadly heat waves and disasters. Why is Biden acting as if the worst outcomes of climate change are the most likely? These are the decisions of a doomsday prepper, not a climate leader.
But once a project like this is approved, it gives a bunch of people a vested interest in pushing humanity into those bad pathways. It’s in their interest now to block a rapid energy transition, lest their investments in projects like Willow prove unprofitable. It’s a clear illustration of how powerful the urge to cling to the past can be, despite the rising intensity of the IPCC’s warnings.
In my home, Norway, a similar attitude of delay pervades the government’s continued enthusiasm for discovering and exploiting new oil and gas fields. The mostly state-owned company Equinor plans to continue expanding until 2026, and it’s pretty safe to assume that somewhere in late 2024, that date will be pushed back. Just another few years, please.
The IPCC’s AR6 synthesis report is a glaring reminder of just how inexcusable these kinds of decisions are, whether in Norway or the United States. Emissions need to fall right now in order to limit warming to even two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), let alone the more ambitious 1.5 degree target originally set by the Paris Agreement. There was some confusion with this around the time the IPCC’s Working Group 3 report was released last year: Due to a quirk of modeling, the message was that emissions need to peak in 2025—but the reality, as highlighted by IPCC contributor Glen Peters, is that emissions really need to peak at the closest possible time in the future. In the next minute. The next second, really. Every next step must be a step where emissions fall.
While previous IPCC reports have somewhat clumsily allowed wiggle room for as yet unproven or unscalable technologies like point-source carbon capture (that means a device capturing the carbon produced by a particular industrial facility before it can be released) and atmospheric carbon removal (like tree planting, emissions capture, or big fans), this synthesis is unambiguous that if those serve as a replacement for emissions reductions, we are truly doomed.
“Implementation of [carbon capture and storage] currently faces technological, economic, institutional, ecological environmental and socio-cultural barriers,” the authors write in a Summary for Policymakers. “Currently, global rates of CCS deployment are far below those in modelled pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C to 2°C.” And that’s what made it into the summary document that’s notorious for being watered down to suit policymakers’ instincts for delay. Stay tuned for what may be stronger language in the full report, due to be released later this week.
There will never be a time free of emotional whiplash for the millions of people fighting to eliminate fossil fuels. The new IPCC report reminds us of the weird nature of this problem: never truly won and never truly lost. We have no choice but to lean into that and fight constantly to change the current ratio of a smattering of good among a mountain of bad. Every little victory tips that balance further.