The 6th IPCC Report was released with some fanfare on August 6th — confirming what we know (that some of the consequences of excess greenhouse gas emissions are inescapable at this point), and yet offering some hope if we are willing to act locally, regionally and globally. The report solidifies the outcomes that scientists have been predicting for at least the past decade and a half.   

We are already witnessing rapid changes in the ocean’s depth, temperature and chemistry, and increasingly extreme weather around the world. And, we can be certain that further change is likely—even if we cannot quantify the consequences. 

Specifically, the ocean is getting warmer, and global sea level is rising.

These changes, some of which will be devastating, are now unavoidable. Extreme heat events can kill coral reefs, migratory seabirds and sea life—as the northwestern United States learned to its cost this summer. Unfortunately, such events have doubled in frequency since the 1980s.  

According to the report, no matter what we do, sea level will continue to rise. Over the past century, ocean levels have risen an average of 8 inches and the rate of increase has doubled since 2006. All over the world, communities are experiencing more flood events and thus more erosion and harm to infrastructure. Again, as the ocean continues to warm, ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland are likely to melt faster than they already are. Their collapse could contribute up to about three additional feet to sea level rise.

Like my colleagues, I am not surprised by this report, nor by our human role in causing climate catastrophe. Our community has seen this coming for a long time. Based on information that was already available, I warned of the collapse of the Atlantic Ocean’s Gulf Stream “conveyor belt,” in a 2004 report for my colleagues. As the planet continues to warm, warming ocean temperatures are slowing these crucial Atlantic ocean currents that help stabilize the climate in Europe, and are becoming more likely to abruptly collapse. Such a collapse could rather suddenly deprive Europe of the ocean’s moderating warmth.

Nonetheless, I am alarmed by the latest IPCC report, because it confirms we are seeing more rapid and extreme effects than we had hoped.  

The good news is we know what we need to do, and there is still a short window to stop things from getting even worse.  We can reduce emissions, move to zero-carbon energy sources, shut down the most polluting energy facilities, and pursue blue carbon restoration to remove carbon in the atmosphere and move it into the biosphere – the no regrets net-zero strategy.

So what can you do?

Support efforts to make changes at the national and international policy level. For example, electricity is the world’s largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and recent studies show that just a handful of companies are responsible for the majority of emissions in the U.S.  Globally, just 5% of fossil fuel power plants emit more than 70% of greenhouse gases—that seems like a cost-effective target. Find out where your electricity comes from and ask your decision makers to see what can be done to diversify sources. Think about how you can reduce your energy footprint and support efforts to restore our natural carbon sinks—the ocean is our ally in this regard.

The IPCC report affirms that the time is now to mitigate the most serious consequences of climate change, even as we learn to adapt to the changes that are already under way. Community-based action can be the multiplier effect for larger scale change. We are all in this together.  

— Mark J. Spalding, President