The latest United Nations climate report, with its devastating assessment of the impacts already wrought by a warming world and dire predictions for what’s to come, is simultaneously terrifying, depressing, and overwhelming.
But it also appears to have another effect, as a call to arms.
Within hours of the early-morning release of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s massive report Monday, its grim news was met with a wave of resolve. In Massachusetts and beyond, elected officials, candidates for political office, and environmental advocates held news conferences, issued statements, and sent a blizzard of tweets calling for action.
“We know the problem, and we also know the solution,” said Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, the president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. “If this is not a call to action, what is?”
Among the report’s many sobering takeaways, it showed that no matter what is done, the planet is expected to warm to 1.5 degrees C over preindustrial levels in the next two decades. That threshold — which represents the lower-bound of the goal set forth in the Paris climate accord — is now unavoidable, according to the report. But what comes next, and whether the planet stays at 1.5 degrees C of warming or barrels ahead to more than 4 degrees C of warming by the end of the century, is up to us and the actions we take in the immediate future.
“We no longer have the luxury of time, the luxury of being able to just convene an all-star working group to hash things out,” said Matt O’Malley, the pro tempore president of the Boston City Council. “It can’t be that we do one thing, and then shake hands and say, ‘We’ve done it, gang — we’ve solved the climate crisis.’”
Following the report, legislators and advocates from the local to the federal level pointed to legislation that could be implemented to rise to the challenge ahead.
“We at the local level need to be doing as much as possible,” said Lydia Edwards, a city councilor representing East Boston, Charlestown, and the North End. That starts with three actions that Boston can and should do immediately; she said: Pass an ordinance to incentivize public transportation, divest the city’s pension investment portfolio from fossil fuels, and pass an ordinance that would require the city’s largest-emitting buildings to get off fossil fuels by 2050.
That building ordinance, which O’Malley proposed, would target the biggest buildings in the city — the 3.5 percent of Boston’s building stock that is responsible for more than 55 percent of the city’s building emissions. “It’s ambitious, but it’s achievable,” O’Malley said.
At the state level, the legislative framework for addressing climate change already exists, thanks to the passage earlier this year of climate legislation calling for a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050.
But achieving those goals will require drastic action, as the state works toward a 2030 goal of getting 1 million buildings off fossil fuels and 1 million cars replaced by electric vehicles, all while building enough offshore wind power to meet the increased electrical demand.
The hardest job will be converting Massachusetts buildings off fossil fuels after years of growth in natural gas, said Turnbull Henry. One tool to help building owners is the Mass Save program, which provides incentives for energy-efficient upgrades. Still, at a time when buildings need to be moving off fossil fuels, it is continuing to offer incentives for converting from oil to natural gas. “We need to be doubling down, tripling down and ramping up the pace of Mass Save retrofits, and really getting serious about stopping fossil fuel conversions,” said Turnbull Henry.
“None of this is rocket science,” she said. “It’s just about political will.”
Candidates running for state and city offices pledged to take decisive action on climate, should they be elected.
Standing in front of City Hall on Monday morning, City Councilor Michelle Wu, who is running for mayor and who supports a Green New Deal for Boston, said, “If there’s anything that comes out of today’s news, it’s that cities must lead the way. Boston must lead the way.”
Meanwhile, former state senator Ben Downing, a Democrat hoping to unseat Governor Charlie Baker, called for 80 percent of the state’s $5 billion in federal COVID relief funds to be directed to climate-related goals, including public transportation, a state Climate Corps, and investments in a clean energy economy.
At the federal level, Senator Edward Markey called the IPCC report “our final warning,” and pointed to legislation he is working to pass. That includes the $3.5 trillion budget resolution, which he said “will help achieve deep emissions reductions, provide massive tax breaks for clean energy technologies that can be made and installed in America, create a Civilian Climate Corps, and center environmental justice for the communities who have been most burdened by fossil fuels.”
Meanwhile, activists called on the federal government to make good on past pledges. “The report makes special note of the immense damage currently being done to our climate by methane emissions, most notably from oil and gas fracking,” said Mitch Jones, policy director of the advocacy organization Food & Water Watch. “The Biden administration could immediately show its commitment to taking this crisis seriously by halting approval for any new fracking on federal lands — a pledge made during the campaign that Biden has yet to make good on.”
Already, life in a world that has warmed 1.1 degrees C is giving a preview of our climate future, and it is not pretty. Wildfires have scorched more than 3.6 million acres of the western United States so far this year, the heat dome in June killed hundreds of people in the United States and Canada and floods in Europe and China devastated entire cities and killed more than 500 people. In Massachusetts, this summer has already seen record-breaking heat in June and record-breaking rain in July.
Even under the best-case scenario, the world will continue warming and hit 1.5 degrees C by the middle of the century, the report said. Scientists have found that this amount of warming will likely result in a significant increase in extreme weather, the loss of some animal and plant species, and crippling and more frequent extreme heat that would threaten the lives of billions of people.
And so adaptation — preparing for the world we know is coming — is key, too.
That will mean getting ready for sea level rise — which, according to the IPCC is locked in for centuries to come, albeit at different paces depending on the choices we make now — and preparing for more extreme heat, among other problems.
Along Boston Harbor, some changes are already happening, according to Aaron Toffler, policy director for Boston Harbor Now. Requirements call for new buildings to be able to sustain certain levels of sea level rise and for the construction of sea walls. But there’s more work to do.
“We have a lot of plans in Boston that are quite good,” Toffler said. “Now is the time to start figuring out how to implement them and where the money is going to come from to do so.”
Boston is just one city, within one state, within one country, but what the IPCC report makes clear is that to avoid the worst effects of climate change and to be ready for what’s coming, action needs to start at the community level.
“If we drag our feet, warming could exceed 4.4 degrees Celsius (8.1 degrees Fahrenheit), which could [actually] spell the end of human civilization,” tweeted climate activist group Extinction Rebellion Boston. “We are fighting for the future of humanity.”