You want drama? We got drama: Remember the terrifying IPCC 2023 Synthesis Report?

Climate Voices

You want drama? We got drama: Remember the terrifying IPCC 2023 Synthesis Report?

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Cloaked in diplomacy, the UN delivers a climate truth bomb 

You’ve probably forgotten about the latest report from the UN IPCC because it came out in Olden Times, way back in March. To refresh your memory, it carried the captivating title, Synthesis Report of the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. From what I could tell, the “About” section is even more boring than the name, but I fell asleep halfway through reading it, so it might pick up toward the end. I recall something about “the assessment report of its three working groups, three special reports, a refinement to the methodology… zzzzzzzzzz…” 

The IPCC’s colleagues over at the similarly named but somehow different UNFCCC apparently managed to stay awake through it, because they responded with a scintillating document called Technical dialogue of the first global stocktake, which is apparently a report about discussions about the IPCC reports. The technical dialogue technically emphasizes that the world’s nations technically have — Surprise! — not done nearly enough to prevent the climate crisis. So that’s great. What exactly is it we were supposed to have done, again?  

Let’s cast our minds back to the ancient past, seven whole months ago… 

How young we were, in the halcyon times before the hottest July in the history of climate history. Before Canadian wildfire smoke blanketed the U.S., shocking the policy makers and financial titans in Washington and New York who are normally insulated from climate change. Before the first-ever tropical storm warning in Southern California, and before the tragicomic spectacle of an ocean of mud at Burning Man. Also, incidentally, before the summer I personally had heat exhaustion twice in two weeks, in September

Where was I? Oh yes, the IPCC Report. 

If you peel away its masterful flourishes of bureaucratese, that ol’IPCC AR6 Synthesis does not fall short of its predecessors – not in the dire urgency department, nor in its pleas for the world to Pay attention, for Pete’s sake, and DO something already.

Earth people: Please care that the planet is burning

What I know about IPCC reports is: 

  • They seem to come out roughly every other day; 
  • they are written by scientists and bureaucrats, and probably scientific bureaucrats; 

Alas, comedic exaggeration falls flat, because the actual conclusions in the actual reports are truly dramatic, and yet astoundingly un-hyperbolic.

There is a helpful section called “Headline Statements,” designed for people seeking maximal panic with minimal scrolling, and for news reporters who’ve been given 30 seconds to explain meteorological catastrophe to a semi-attentive audience waiting to board an airplane. 

Skimming the bullet points therein, one learns that “Human activities, principally through emissions of greenhouse gasses, have unequivocally caused global warming,” a sentence that is both incredibly dull and frighteningly clear. That word unequivocally shows up so casually in the third clause, hitting you right between the eyes while you’re still groggy from the soothing non-specificity of what came before. 

The word unequivocally hits you right between the eyes

Moving on, “Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.” I don’t know what a cryosphere is. I think Walt Disney might live there? But wow, the confidence this statement throws down! Widespread. Rapid. Have occurred. As the kids say, we’ve um… f*#&ed around with fossil fuels, and now we’re finding out about the deadly consequences.

Confidence ratings, italicized and parenthetical, follow every assertion like a Greek chorus of scientist-slash-bureaucrats, the Oceanides of sea level rise, perhaps: 

  • “Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health (very high confidence).” 
  • “There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all (very high confidence).” 
  • “Ocean acidification (virtually certain), ocean deoxygenation (high confidence) and global mean sea level (virtually certain) will continue to increase in the 21st century, at rates dependent on future emissions.”

There’s an awful lot of certainty and confidence around some seriously high-stakes facts throughout this report. 

Having attended elementary school before the invention of STEM, I can’t claim to understand the technical details of causal linkages between things like emissions, acidification, deoxygenation and climate change. Not being a magician, I can’t transform the global economy with a snap of my fingers to “achieve deep and sustained emissions reductions and secure a livable and sustainable future for all” (high confidence). 

Listen my children, and you shall hear of a time not so very long ago when the rivers did not encroach upon the land

What I can tell you, though, is that having grown up in, on, and beside the Chesapeake Bay, it’s plain to see the changes to the water, the land, the flora and the fauna so abstrusely described by the scientist-slash-bureaucrats. Listen my children, and you shall hear of a time not so very long ago when the rivers did not encroach upon the land. 

It’s hard to believe, but the street that runs down to the waterfront in my home town wasn’t named High Street because high tides often covered it, as they do now. A couple of decades ago, a boater had a buffet of sandy beaches to choose from for a picnic excursion. Today, you’d need your waders instead of sand pails, because the water has swallowed the beaches. 

Now we have HOT hot 

The river’s edges around the Chesapeake are now studded with leaning trees, roots visible in various stages of indecent exposure because the rudely encroaching water has hollowed out the soil from below. Raising houses, docks, and parking lots lest they be reclaimed by waterfowl is not a time-honored tradition ‘round these parts, but it’s become the hot new trend — all the kids are doing it! Don’t get me wrong, summer has always been hot, but there’s hot and then there’s what we have nowadays: HOT hot. 

Hundred-year floods used to come around once a century or so. But strangely, as of 2019, a study in the journal Nature predicted annual 100-year floods in New England and the mid-Atlantic—suggesting a branding mistake at the very least, and possibly a case of false advertising flagrant enough to report to the FTC.

Sober, buttoned down people and institutions like the IPCC have been politely dialing up the dramatic language about the severity, urgency, and imminence of climate change for [checks notes] a lifetime. And people really do understand it better than they did even a few years ago. 

Swarms of people documenting the waves washing inexorably over the boardwalk: this is progress

Maybe all these reports have made a difference. Or maybe it’s because the crisis has gotten so much more visible, so rapidly, what with the heat, fires, floods and hurricanes on a seemingly daily basis. It’s especially hard to avoid for those of us who live in a place where the line between the water and the land has become more of a suggestion than a border, and where a bigger proportion of the economy is devoted to adaptation, mitigation, and emergency response every year.

I have a semi-obsessive habit of photographing the high tides as they shove the rivers into places where they really don’t belong. A few years ago, when I would traipse to the foot of High Street or to a local wharf for this purpose,  I would almost always be alone. Anyone else who was around simply launched their boat or took their walk, apparently oblivious to the really big, ah… puddle in their way. This summer, however, I’ve sometimes felt almost superfluous amongst the swarms of people documenting the waves washing inexorably over the boardwalk. This is progress. 

Yet every time the IPCC drops a new truth bomb, it seems to scarcely make a splash. No wonder those poor scientists-slash-bureaucrats keep pushing the drama-meter higher. They must feel like they’re screaming into the abyss. This communication crisis is another urgent iteration of the global polycrisis, a neologism that I learned recently and wish we hadn’t needed to invent, but how can regular people possibly be expected to cope with climate change news? The systems are so complex, the changes needed are on such a massive scale, with so much global power and money at stake. We’re just trying to get through the day over here. 

The future isn’t written yet; we are writing it every day.

IPCC 2023’s suggestions about “Increased international cooperation including improved access to adequate financial resources, particularly for vulnerable regions, sectors and groups, and inclusive governance and coordinated policies” keep slipping down the to-do list, below laundry, keeping track of grocery prices, staying updated on covid vaccines and mourning the end of Ted Lasso. 

It’s tempting to believe that the smart and passionate folks doing things like attending Climate Summits and COP will fix it so the rest of us can get on with our lives, but let’s be real. We’re all in this together, and conferences are not going to solve it for us. Don’t get me wrong, we need earnest addresses and media hype, but the calving glaciers don’t care about social media posts from “thought leaders.” It may make the scientist-slash-bureaucrats and policy wonks-slash-spokespeople feel better to exchange business cards and envision the future en masse, but they’re freaked out and overwhelmed too, which does not tend to give one a relaxed feeling in the pit of the stomach. 

Put that hope in action

At moments like these I like to turn to smart organizations and wise friends for real talk with no sugar-coating. So I asked Darran White Tilghman for help. She’s Director of Community Engagement at ShoreRivers, which works to protect the dozens of rivers along Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Unlike me, the folks at ShoreRivers do understand science. They can sort out what individuals need to know, and point us toward what we can do. 

Darran’s message helped rouse me from my jargon-induced slumber:

There is plenty of cause for grief and anger in the latest IPCC report, but it is so important not to give in to despondency and doom. The future isn’t written yet; we are writing it every day. Let’s make the story we write one of stubborn hope and joy. Put that hope into action by planting a native tree or River-Friendly Yard, by insisting that all sectors embrace the climate solutions that already exist, by sharing your love of our waterways and lands with a young person. There is still time to act, and if we act together we will create a shared future we want to inhabit.

I believe in the truth of this message (very high confidence), and the IPCC did, too, as of — checks watch — last March. Even while dialing up the urgency, the scientists-slash-bureaucrats insist that “multiple, feasible and effective options are available.” Not only that, but also that the very solutions that will reduce emissions and slow global warming will also come with side benefits of reducing hunger, reducing poverty, and improving global health and overall societal well-being. 

The snappy Global Stocktake tells us that “much more is needed now, on all fronts and by all actors.” That means you. And me. 

Each of us has options for action, and if we come together even in small bands of neighbors or colleagues or friends — or in big marches in the streets of New York and Nairobi, Bern and Berlin, in the Hague and the Philippines — we have even more options. Let’s write the future we want. I’ll see you at the water’s blurry edge.

Featured photo: flood tide in the Chesapeake Bay. Courtesy of Maria Wood.

Written by

Maria Wood

Maria Wood is a writer, producer, and advocate based on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She writes on social, cultural, and political topics, including the climate crisis. She recently co-produced Family Tides, a documentary film project about sea level rise and climate justice on the Chesapeake Bay. Earlier, she founded the National Children’s Music Project with David Grover, producing award-winning albums and video projects and concert appearances throughout the United States, including at the United Nations and the White House.