The world faces dramatic consequences ranging from heightened food shortages to shrinking coastlines as soon as 2040 if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, according to scientists from 40 countries convened by the United Nations.
For years experts believed a rise of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit was the threshold for severe impacts. But after reviewing more than 6,000 scholarly studies, the scientists concluded human health, economies and ecosystems will suffer with a smaller rise of 2.7 degrees.
Some states and cities are already taking action.
Erick Shambarger, Milwaukee’s environmental sustainability director says the city is one of many municipalities trying to offset climate change impacts. Milwaukee's plan includes harvesting solar power.
The roof of the Milwaukee Central Library in downtown generates about 36,000 kilowatts, enough to power 5 homes for a year, according to the Milwaukee Environmental Collaboration Office. But due to the scale of climate change, Shambarger says they’re adding to the city’s solar capacity.
Milwaukee has a green infrastructure plan that includes installing rain gardens and other systems to slow and soak up stormwater without expending excess energy.
“But we have to go much further than that. The scale and urgency from the U.N. report tells us that we need utility scale solar. That means building stuff at scale of power plant – wind or solar,” Shambarger says.
The global warming report might be tailored to policymakers, but Shambarger believes citizens are critical to curbing climate change.
“I think there is growing awareness, but I think the urgency is outpacing people’s consciousness of this. Easy to blame politicians for not taking action but people who vote for politicians need to make this an issue, write to them whether you’re in a rural or urban area,” Shambarger says.
Wisconsin native Melissa Scanlan is Professor of Law at Vermont Law School. She read through the dense report. "[It] says we need to get to net zero CO2 emissions as quickly as possible and the longer we wait, we’ll hit tipping points from which we can’t return,” Scanlan says.
The report includes recommendations.
“The changes are pretty radical, but it doesn’t mean lifestyles will be completely disrupted. It’s not as if we have to stop using electricity, but we need to switch off fossil fuels to renewables and we have the technology to do so,” Scanlan says.
Tia Nelson with the Outrider Foundation is the daughter of Gaylord Nelson, who's credited as the founder of Earth Day. Nelson has spent a lifetime immersed in the environment and says the U.N. report presents the global challenge in stark terms.
While the basic understanding of climate change — that burning fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide that remains in the atmosphere and warms Earth — isn't new, she says the report highlights human-caused science change.
"This report shines a bright light on is that the human-caused climate change we’re observing is accelerating and we have a pretty narrow window in which to act to reduce carbon emissions. That window of action is what we do in the next decade,” Nelson says, “It’s important that we pursue every available climate solution in some cases simultaneously.”
Nelson says the climate challenge requires an all hands on deck strategy.
“I hope the report creates conversations and inspire citizens to ask their elected official – be they local, state or federal – what those elected official are doing to protect our future and the future of our children,” she says.
Nelson says it will take public policy at every level of government in countries around the globe to avoid the dire projections in the report.
Yet not everyone supports the findings in the U.N.-commissioned study, or the above suggested changes to energy use. The World Coal Association says, “About 75 percent of the world’s energy still comes from fossil fuels and with the world’s energy demand set to rise, fossil fuels — including coal — will continue to power up many economies.”
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