Aug. 9, 2021
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IPCC reports climate change is widespread, rapid and intensifying

Anne M Stark, stark8 [at] llnl.gov, 925-422-9799

Scientists are observing changes in the Earth’s climate in every region and across the whole climate system, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report, released today. Many of the observed climate changes are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, and some of the changes already set in motion — such as continued sea-level rise — are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years.

However, strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases would limit further climate change. While benefits for air quality would come quickly, it could take 20-30 years to see global temperatures stabilize, according to the IPCC Working Group I report, “Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis,” approved last week by 195 IPCC member governments, through a virtual approval session that was held over two weeks starting July 26.

The report is the first installment of the three-part IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), which will be completed in 2022. See the full report.

“This report reflects extraordinary efforts under exceptional circumstances,” said Hoesung Lee, chair of the IPCC. “The innovations in this report, and advances in climate science that it reflects, provide an invaluable input into climate negotiations and decision making.”

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientists Paul Durack, Celine Bonfils, Peter Gleckler, Ben Santer and Mark Zelinka contributed to this report. This contribution continues a four-decade legacy of involvement in the IPCC by LLNL's Program for Climate Model Diagnosis & Intercomparison, with scientific leadership provided through all five previous IPCC assessments dating back to the initial report, published in 1990.

Faster warming

The report provides new estimates of the chances of crossing the global warming level of 2.7°F (1.5°Celsius) above the pre-industrial (1850-1900) average in the next decades and finds that unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 2.7°F or even 3.6°F (2°C) will be beyond reach.

The report shows that emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are responsible for approximately 2.0°F (1.1°C) of warming above pre-industrial levels, and finds that averaged over the next 20 years, global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 2.7°F of warming. This assessment is based on improved observational datasets to assess historical warming, as well progress in scientific understanding of the response of the climate system to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

“This report is a reality check,” said IPCC Working Group I Co-Chair Valérie Masson-Delmotte. “We now have a much clearer picture of the past, present and future climate, which is essential for understanding where we are headed, what can be done and how we can prepare.”

Every region facing increasing changes

Many characteristics of climate change directly depend on the level of global warming, but what people experience is often very different from the global average. For example, warming over land is larger than the global average, and it is more than twice as high in the Arctic.

“Climate change is already affecting every region on Earth, in multiple ways. The changes we experience will increase with additional warming,” said IPCC Working Group I Co-Chair Panmao Zhai.

The report projects that in the coming decades climate changes will increase in all regions. For 2.7°F of global warming, there will be increasing heat waves, longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons. At 3.6°F of global warming, heat extremes would more often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health, the report shows.

“Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, floods, droughts and tropical cyclones, and their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since AR5,” said IPCC Working Group I Lead Author of “Human influence on the Climate System” (Chapter Three) Paul Durack.

“Every heatwave occurring today is made more likely and more intense by human-induced climate change. What we have known for some time, and what the latest report confirms, is that a higher rate of greenhouse gas emissions leads to a higher warming rate, and this leads to increasing intensity and frequency of extremes. In coming years, we expect to see new extremes that are unprecedented in magnitude and frequency, or in regions that have never encountered those types of events,” Durack said.

But it is not just about temperature. Climate change is bringing multiple different changes in different regions – which will all increase with further warming. These include changes to wet and dryness, winds, snow and ice, coastal areas and oceans. For example:

  • Climate change is intensifying the water cycle. This brings more intense rainfall and associated flooding, as well as more intense drought in many regions
  • Climate change is affecting rainfall patterns. In high latitudes, precipitation is likely to increase, while it is projected to decrease over large parts of the subtropics. Changes to monsoon precipitation are expected, which will vary by region
  • Coastal areas will see continued sea-level rise throughout the 21st century, contributing to more frequent and severe coastal flooding and coastal erosion. Extreme sea-level events that previously occurred once in 100 years could happen every year by the end of this century
  • Further warming will amplify permafrost thawing, and the loss of seasonal snow cover, melting of glaciers and ice sheets and loss of summer Arctic sea ice
  • Changes to the ocean, including warming, more frequent marine heatwaves, ocean acidification and reduced oxygen levels have been clearly linked to human influence. These changes affect both ocean ecosystems and the people that rely on them, and they will continue throughout at least the rest of this century
  • For cities, some aspects of climate change may be amplified, including heat (since urban areas are usually warmer than their surroundings), flooding from heavy precipitation events and sea-level rise in coastal cities

For the first time, the Sixth Assessment Report provides a more detailed regional assessment of climate change, including a focus on useful information that can inform risk assessment, adaptation and other decision-making and a new framework that helps translate physical changes in the climate – heat, cold, rain, drought, snow, wind, coastal flooding and more – into what they mean for society and ecosystems.

This regional information can be explored in detail in the newly developed Interactive Atlas as well as regional fact sheets, the technical summary and the underlying report which are all available from the home page.

Human influence on the past and future climate

“A discernible human influence on global climate was first identified in the IPCC Second Assessment Report (1995). Since that time, the supporting evidence has continued to strengthen, and human influence on the climate system is now undisputed. In this latest report, large-scale indicators of climate change in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and land surface show clear responses from human influence climate change is here and now,” Durack said.

The new report also reflects major advances in the science of attribution – understanding the role of climate change in intensifying specific weather and climate events such as extreme heat waves and heavy rainfall events.

The report also shows that human actions still have the potential to determine the future course of climate. The evidence is clear that carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main driver of climate change, even as other greenhouse gases and air pollutants also affect the climate.

“Stabilizing the climate will require strong, rapid and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and reaching net-zero CO2 emissions. Limiting other greenhouse gases and air pollutants, especially methane, could have benefits both for health and the climate,” Zhai said.

Work at LLNL was funded by the Department of Energy’s Regional and Global Model Analysis Program-area in the Earth and Environmental Systems Sciences Division.