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U.N. Climate Change Report Predicts Cataclysmic Future, Sooner Than Expected

Downtown Manhattan during Superstorm Sandy.
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Downtown Manhattan during Superstorm Sandy. via

We really screwed ourselves, perhaps irreparably, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found. Presenting a wide-reaching report in Incheon, South Korea on Monday, the panel suggested that we may be hurtling toward global destruction, unless every country around the globe undertakes "rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society."

The report, commissioned by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in accordance with the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, synthesizes efforts from 91 authors and editors across 40 countries, who reviewed and analyzed more than 6,000 studies. The climate accord seeks to cap increases in the average global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, previously regarded as the warming point of no return in terms of certain environmental catastrophe. The report's authors analyzed the potential effects of a lower temperature increase—1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels—and determined that the threshold for widespread devastation is much lower than scientists had believed. And furthermore, the way things are going, we may achieve 1.5 degrees by 2040.

In terms of immediate impact, we might anticipate the death of all the coral reefs, ever more frequent and severe wildfires, drought, famine, exacerbated poverty, global damage to the tune of $69 trillion, and general chaos. Rising sea levels could also worsen coastal flooding, sending people fleeing from the tropics. "In some parts of the world, national borders will become irrelevant," Aromar Revi, director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements and an author of the report, told the NY Times. "You can set up a wall to try to contain 10,000 and 20,000 and one million people, but not 10 million."

Theoretically, bringing warming down to 1.5 degrees would be possible, climate scientists told the Times; practically, though, they have their doubts.

"It's telling us we need to reverse emissions trends and turn the world economy on a dime," Myles Allen, a climate scientist at Oxford University and one of the report's authors, told the outlet. Heading off the apocalypse would require cutting those emissions 45 percent from their 2010 levels before 2030, and 100 percent before 2050. It would require slashing coal use, which today accounts for 40 percent of electricity use, to the 1-to-7 percent range by 2050. At the same time, we'd need to boost renewable energy sources from their current 20 percent to 67 percent.

All of that seems like an untenably tall order when you remember that key world leaders—ahem, Donald Trump—refuse to accept facts as facts. Trump, for example, has gone after wind and solar energy to free up money for fossil fuel. He plans to officially withdraw from the Paris climate agreement as soon as possible, and repeatedly hammers upon his deep love of coal.

So, basically, the long and the short of this is that we stand to be engulfed in flames—and relatively soon. And while you may want to take some small comfort in the fact that you (presumably) live in or around New York City, a metropolis that has announced its intent to stick with the Paris agreement, the government's commitment to combatting climate change seems halfhearted at best. Despite his fracking ban and his stated animosity toward greenhouse gas emissions, Gov. Andrew Cuomo seems loath to enact the types of measures that would mitigate them by 2030.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, too, has so far moved slowly on his proposal to shift $4 billion of city pension fund investments from fossil fuels to sustainable energy efforts within five years. In the meantime, the unreliable state of our dilapidated public transit system—and the looming shutdown of one very popular commuter line—may explain why people are increasingly seeking out private vehicle and ride-share transportation.

In any case, the country's leaders have no plans to reverse course. Reaffirming the administration's commitment to withdrawing from the climate accord, the State Department said in a statement to the Times that its "acceptance of this report ... does not imply endorsement by the United States of the specific findings or underlying contents of the report."

Read the full report here.

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