climate change

‘There's No Going Back': The UN Climate Report, Explained

Here's what the latest IPCC report means and why it's not the end of the world

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As a young TV meteorologist fresh out of college, I was doing the normal circuit of school visits in Portland, Maine, when I was asked to speak to a group of young people about the latest findings in global warming.

It was in the early '90s and the science surrounding climate change was still somewhat uncertain. As I played a grainy video of one particular General Circulation Model (GCM), I noticed it was splotching red and orange (warm anomalies) all over the globe.

Through the 2000s, 2010s and 2020s (the longest lead time in the models' forecast) the blobs quickly merged and expanded to cover the entire planet. I distinctly remember snickering as I turned to the class and said, "Well that looks downright hot. Thank goodness those are ballpark projections into the future. Let's hope we don't ever see that in our lifetimes."

That's one forecast I wish I got wrong.

The latest report coming out of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is beyond sobering. Some have even called it alarming. But if you've been following all along, it's no surprise that we're at the tipping point. If you haven't, it's time to get on board.

Photos: “There's No Going Back”

The effects of a warmer planet are all around us. From the very change in our ecosystems, forests and oceans to the very air we breathe. When did it become "normal" for us to see and smell forest fires from blazes burning thousands of miles away? And yet normal is a trigger for some who would question global warming.

"When is weather ever normal?" I was asked on Twitter. It's true, it almost never is. It varies from the extremes to something near average. Yet it's all we have to gauge what would typically happen for a given climate. And what's certain is that the extremes we're seeing are not explained by "normal" climate variation.

The summer averages from 1951 through 1980 show that we should have very few days that are extreme. However, nowadays, we should be seeing over 22% of the days on the extremely warm end of the range. Instead of 14 days of 90 degrees or more in Boston, we could see more than double that by the 2030s.

Photos: “There's No Going Back”

One of the buzz words that came out of the report is "weather whiplash" - or the sudden shift from one extreme to another. No better is that defined that our crash from 100 degrees on June 30 to the sweatshirt-worthy 60 on July 3 of this year.

As the jet stream slows, we're also more likely to become "trapped" in long term periods of cold, warm, dry or wet weather. Hello July. And the winter of 2014-15. And last summer's drought.

Photos: “There's No Going Back”

It's easy to get lost in the words and the hyperbole and miss the big picture. Curb worldwide emissions and we stem the tide. We cancel the doomsday scenario. But it's also important to realize that no matter what our course of action, we will never turn back the clock.

The pent up carbon dioxide in our atmosphere would take hundreds of years to purge. For that reason, in our lifetimes, the weather will always be extreme. And we need to do everything we can to prepare and adapt.

Small things can collectively matter. Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, retreating from the coastlines, wetlands, flood plains and remote forests/landscapes. Embracing a new economy of sustainability, including renewables and alternatives to fossil fuels. It sounds impossible, but we must foster cooperation between all countries and nationalities to bring about permanent change.

I'm often ribbed about "doing something about the weather." Let's hope we all can come together to make that a reality.

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