Recap: New Global Climate Change Report

Human activity has warmed Earth's atmosphere, ocean and land—and climate change is linked to increasing fires, drought, floods and hurricanes.

At the National Aquarium, we combat climate change in a variety of ways—restoring watershed habitat, translating ocean climate science, advocating for better climate policies and more. The report released last week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provides a sobering and urgent reminder of how pressing the need for climate action is right now—and how much broader in scale it needs to be.

The IPCC report, "Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis," is the product of hundreds of climate scientists volunteering their time to synthesize and summarize more than 14,000 studies and present the most up-to-date understanding for decision-makers around the globe to act upon. One primary conclusion of the report is that human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, is undoubtedly causing the warming of Earth's atmosphere, ocean and land. It is also now clear that climate change is explicitly linked to increasing extreme weather events like fires, drought, floods and hurricanes.

The report emphasizes that while the pace of global climate change is increasing and we cannot undo the changes that have already taken place, it is not too late to avoid the direst future scenarios—if powerful countries and companies make urgent, broad, systemic changes.

Climate Change 101

When humans burn fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas to power our homes, businesses and modes of transportation, it adds excessive carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. When that excessive CO2 builds up, it traps heat in the Earth's atmosphere, increasing global temperatures. As we continue to heat up our one and only planet, we are experiencing changes—including sea level rise, ocean acidification and extreme weather—that negatively impact our water, land and air.

Key Takeaways

The IPCC report underscores that unless there are immediate, rapid, large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions around the world, it won't be possible to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or even 2 degrees Celsius, in the coming decades. Human activity is already responsible for about 1.1 degree of warming, which is causing more intense heat waves, longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons, which affect agriculture and food production as well as human health. With every increment that the global temperature rises, the more serious and severe the related impacts will be.

The report shows that changes to the ocean—including warming, more frequent marine heat waves, ocean acidification and reduced oxygen levels—are clearly linked to human influence. These changes jeopardize all that the ocean provides for us, including oxygen, food, medicine, climate regulation, transportation and recreation.

Resources and Actions

Taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a personal, individual level matters, but governments—particularly those of developed and wealthy countries like the United States—have largely procrastinated on broad, systemic changes necessary to avoid a much hotter future. One of the most important things individuals can do for the climate and the ocean is exert pressure on elected officials at all levels of government, as well as large companies, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow the rate of warming and remain below the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold.

Contact your local, state and federal elected officials. Consider the climate when you vote. Research the environmental policies and practices of the businesses you patronize. Keep having conversations about climate change with those around you.

Protecting the ocean is one way to help combat climate change. The ocean absorbs carbon dioxide and could potentially help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit temperature rise, but its ability to do so is being compromised.

The Aquarium has joined other organizations in asking Congress to support $10 billion for coastal, ocean and Great Lakes restoration and resilience in the forthcoming Senate budget reconciliation bill, which would build on a historic, bipartisan infrastructure bill recently passed by the Senate. Significant investments in climate resiliency are overdue, and are a bargain compared to how much climate response will cost later if we do nothing now.

Maggie Ostdahl, conservation policy manager at the National Aquarium, says, "The latest IPCC report is another comprehensive reminder that the situation is very serious and will get worse if we choose not to act appropriately. There is still time to combat climate change, but it's all hands on deck and we need to push leaders to pick up the pace."

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