Heat, wildfires, air pollution: Multiple extremes will occur more often, says UN report co-author

The consequences of global warming are now unavoidable, while climate catastrophes are likely to get worse. Those are the findings of a new report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 

“You’ve been telling us for over three decades of the dangers of allowing the planet to warm. … The world listened, but it didn’t act strongly enough,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme at a press conference on Monday. “As a result, climate change is a problem that is here now. Nobody’s safe and it’s getting worse faster.” 

The earth is projected to surpass a heating threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius. It’s at that point when serious climate events are expected to take place. All that is according to Michael Prather, a professor of earth system sciences at UC Irvine and a contributor to the IPCC report. 

“It's a mistake to think 1.5 is an absolute threshold that everyone dies if you go off the cliff. But the answer is every 10th of a degree makes things a little bit worse. … There's probably going to be environmental issues of insecurity and threats around the world because a lot of places will not be livable,” Prather tells KCRW. “When you exceed 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) … people cannot work outdoors. And so we're basically going into a new world.”

Sea levels will rise for centuries 

He says that the increase in global temperatures will lead to rising sea levels, which can include a fraction of a meter. It may not seem like a lot, but he warns that even a few centimeters of rise will lead to the erosion of coastal areas, such as wetlands. Prather adds that the most drastic changes won’t be seen for at least a few hundred years. 

“By the end of the century, [sea levels are] still going up. And for sea level rise, we've basically changed the climate forever. … To keep the temperature down, the ice will keep melting. The heat will go into the ocean and the sea level will go up. ... That will take again more than 500 years to probably reverse it.”

Prather points extreme temperatures can cause a slew of other problems. He uses the example of the heat dome that hit western states in late June. 

“The dome would be one bad thing. But then the fires came, which then brought the air pollution in addition to the fire damage. And so we're seeing basically multiple extremes, occurring more and more frequently together, because we're seeing higher extremes. … Multiple damage is usually harder to recover from.”

The sliver of hope

Despite these dire projections, Prather says the warming is reversible. That includes regulating the emission of CO2 and methane gases.

“CO2 in the long run will control everything by the end of the century. But methane will control climate over the next 20 or 30 years along with CO2. So methane is a pollutant we can probably get rid of more quickly. And it may or may not be as tied to our energy systems. So it might be an easier gas to control and easier way to get a fast response in the next 20-30 years.”

He adds that it’s critical for nations to create a plan that will uniformly attack carbon emissions.

“You must have a concerted effort. … You're looking at these goals for governments arguing [that] by 2035, by 2050, we will be either reduced to 20%, or we will be carbon neutral. That's at least the goal that people should be having. And if you have that goal, whether you achieve it or get close to it, then you will probably make a significant impact on the future climate.”