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Alarming climate change report resonates on parched, fire-scarred North Coast: ‘We know what we have to do’

Key findings, projections of UN climate report

Findings:

-Human-induced global warming is underway at an unprecedented rate and has raised average surface temperatures 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

-The world can act now to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Each additional fraction of a degree in elevated temperature increases frequency and intensity of extreme impacts, including potentially deadly heat waves, torrential rains and flooding, extended drought, sea level rise, wildfires and ocean warming, acidification and oxygen loss.

-Maintaining carbon emissions at the current rate would raise by mid-century average temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius above the temperatures of the late 1800s, compounding climate-related risks.

Projections:

At 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming

– 420 million fewer people exposed to “extreme heatwaves” and about 65 million fewer exposed to “exceptional heatwaves”

– Lower risk to human health, food systems and other natural systems, including freshwater, wetland, coastal and ocean ecosystems

– One sea-ice-free Arctic summer every 100 years compared to one every 10 years at 2 degrees

At 2 degrees Celsius of warming

– Higher temperature spikes during the warm season in mid-latitude regions, including most of the United States

– 18% of insects, 16% of plants and 8% of vertebrates are predicted to lose more than half of their climatically determined range, compared to 6% of insects, 8% of plants and 4% of vertebrates at 1.5 degrees.

– Higher risk of water scarcity and impacts on urban areas and vulnerable populations.

– Increased salinity of coastal groundwater, increased flooding and infrastructure damage

SOURCE: IPCC report August 2021

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.

Key findings, projections of UN climate report

Findings:

-Human-induced global warming is underway at an unprecedented rate and has raised average surface temperatures 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

-The world can act now to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Each additional fraction of a degree in elevated temperature increases frequency and intensity of extreme impacts, including potentially deadly heat waves, torrential rains and flooding, extended drought, sea level rise, wildfires and ocean warming, acidification and oxygen loss.

-Maintaining carbon emissions at the current rate would raise by mid-century average temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius above the temperatures of the late 1800s, compounding climate-related risks.

Projections:

At 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming

– 420 million fewer people exposed to “extreme heatwaves” and about 65 million fewer exposed to “exceptional heatwaves”

– Lower risk to human health, food systems and other natural systems, including freshwater, wetland, coastal and ocean ecosystems

– One sea-ice-free Arctic summer every 100 years compared to one every 10 years at 2 degrees

At 2 degrees Celsius of warming

– Higher temperature spikes during the warm season in mid-latitude regions, including most of the United States

– 18% of insects, 16% of plants and 8% of vertebrates are predicted to lose more than half of their climatically determined range, compared to 6% of insects, 8% of plants and 4% of vertebrates at 1.5 degrees.

– Higher risk of water scarcity and impacts on urban areas and vulnerable populations.

– Increased salinity of coastal groundwater, increased flooding and infrastructure damage

SOURCE: IPCC report August 2021

“Emblematic action or symbolic action no longer cuts it,” Schleeter said.

He pointed specifically at Gov. Gavin Newsom’s goal of attaining carbon neutrality by 2045, though he’s considering pathways to reach neutrality by 2035.

The 2045 target, said Schleeter, “is so slow.”

But Daniel Kammen, chairman of the Energy Resources Group at UC Berkeley and a leading expert in the field, said carbon neutrality “isn’t good enough” given the rising inequality and increasingly severe global impacts of climate change.

“Politics to speed up the transition from fossils fuels to clean energy will vastly reduce the amount of pollution we release each year,” Kammen said in a written statement. “At the same time, scaling up nature-based carbon sequestration techniques and protecting vital ecosystems like forests and wetlands will begin to draw down some of the carbon already in the atmosphere. This is how we get to net-negative emissions by 2030.”

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Lynda Hopkins said the pace of change and the predictions for an “unpredictable, inhospitable and increasingly uninhabitable” planet means people have no choice but to confront the issue now, even though “it’s a lot to handle.”

While that should automatically mean making consumer decisions and personal decisions that take carbon costs into consideration, she said she also would be favorable toward a carbon tax on consumer goods if only it could be applied on a broader scale than a single county.

“I have a hard time understanding how this (climate change) isn’t the top priority for every leader on the planet,” she said.

Tanya Nareth, director of climate programs for the Regional Climate Protection Authority, said she’s hopeful that reality will move people to avail themselves of solutions and technologies that will break the cycle.

“It’s not hopeless,” she said, “but it’s a lot of work — not to minimize the work that needs to be done.”

Said Schleeter: “The report is dire, and it is bleak, but it’s not shocking. It tells us a lot of things that we already knew about the reality of the climate crisis, what’s causing the climate crisis and what we need to do about that.

“And the silver lining of that is we already knew the solution.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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