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IPCC Climate Report’s Clarion Call for Action

The most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of experts convened by the United Nations, gives a stark analysis of the effects of climate change globally.

The report — written by 270 researchers from 67 countries and approved by 195 governments — warns that dangerous and widespread disruption is already happening with an increase of threats from wildfires, heat waves, rising sea levels, and natural disasters. Food and water supplies are being jeopardized and people are being displaced from their homes. And the world’s struggling nations are bearing the brunt of the damages with limited funding.

It should be heard as a call to action for countries and people everywhere.”

Daniel EstyHillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at the Yale School of the Environment and Yale Law School

Since the Industrial Revolution, more than a trillion tons of carbon dioxide has been released into the atmosphere, driving global temperatures up by more than one degree Celsius. In 2015, world leaders pledge in the Paris climate agreement to limit warming to no higher than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The report — the third of three installments by the panel — represents a clarion call for action, noting clearly that the dangers of a warming planet are mounting quickly and if unchecked drought, heat, hunger, floods, loss of biodiversity and pollution will continue to surge.

Daniel Esty, Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at the Yale School of the Environment and Yale Law School, discusses the key messages from the report and next steps. Esty, editor of the recent prize-winning book, “A Better Planet: 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future,” has been working on climate change since the late 1980s when he held several senior positions at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, including as a negotiator of the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change. He also served as the Commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, leading efforts to draft Connecticut’s first energy strategy, launch a Green Bank to promote clean energy, and restructure the state’s regulatory programs.

What are the key takeaways from this report?

The key takeaway, which is consistent with prior IPCC findings and emerging climate science, is that the climate change threat is real, serious, and posing substantial risks even more quickly than we might have imagined. One other point that comes through clearly is that a successful response to climate change requires a global response with every country stepping up to do its part.

Will the IPCC’s message get to the public in actionable ways?

What is really needed from the IPCC is a public outreach campaign that takes this report’s conclusions to communities — not just across the U.S., but across the world — explaining why this report matters, what the science now tells us, and how the policy conclusions require action by all of us in terms of shifting our everyday lives toward a clean-energy future. This sort of careful effort to explain the science to the public in layperson's terms represents a big challenge in front of the IPCC — but critical to changing the politics of climate change in a number of countries, most notable the U.S.

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What should policy makers and government leaders take away from this report?

It should be heard as a call to action for countries and people everywhere. For all of us in the U.S., it offers answers to critical questions: What climate impacts should we expect? Who faces vulnerabilities — and how should they respond? What sort of adaptation investments need now be made?

There are certainly parts of U.S. —especially across the Southeast and Gulf Coast, for example — where the threats have become ever more real, posing serious and rising risks from hurricanes and other sorts of extreme weather. This means that there needs to be a significant focus on adaptation, including investments in infrastructure, moving some vulnerable facilities back from the threats they face such as sea-level rise, and efforts to think about how our development patterns should unfold in the years ahead to reduce community vulnerability.

What gives you hope about the future in the face of climate change?

I think some of the most positive climate change actions of the last couple of years come from the private sector. In the wake of the Glasgow Climate Pact of last November, thousands of companies are stepping up with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions pledges by 2050. And, as “Values at Work: Sustainable Investing and ESG Reporting,” my recent book with my Yale School of Management colleague Todd Cort, spells out, lots of sustainability-minded investors are also demanding better alignment between their portfolios and their values —adding to the logic for companies to regear their business models.

What message does this report have for the younger generation that is inheriting this issue?

Young people, especially those deeply concerned about climate change, often perceive themselves as not being listened to or heard on the need for transformative change. But I believe the younger generation is being taken very seriously. In fact, at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, the phrase I heard repeated more than any other was Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg's call for no more “blah-blah-blah” — meaning, of course, that the time for talk had passed and it is now time for action. And let me be clear: the folks repeating this call were not just other young people, but corporate CEOs, top political leaders, and senior officials from international organizations — all of whom I think had come to recognize the need for fundamental shifts in the global economy to move the world toward deep decarbonization. With young people leading this charge, I believe momentum is building to spur innovation, cut greenhouse gas emission, and move society toward a sustainable future.

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