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By Alexandra Branscombe
October 22, 2013
Caption : Key points from the United Nations' latest report on climate change.     

Pressure to increase global policy confronting climate change has increased following a newly released report from the United Nations; a report bolstered by its strongest warning to date—climate change is undeniable.

After nearly seven years of following climate change research, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that “warming in the climate system is unequivocal.” The report leaves no room for doubt that climate change is happening, with humans contributing to it.

The report lays out several harsh realities. Since 1951, greenhouse gases have contributed to warming of about 0.6°C globally, and warming is likely to reach the critical threshold of 2°C by the end of the 21st century. Consequences of global warming, as laid out in the report, can be seen in the rise of sea levels and drastic changes to the water cycle. Wet regions of the world have increased reports of rainfall, yet dry ecosystems will receive less and less; therefore, adding to the increase in desertification across regions of the globe.

According to its website, the report’s objective “is to provide a comprehensive and robust assessment of the physical science basis of climate change.” It warns that the Earth cannot continue to release the same amount of carbon dioxide as it has historically. To avoid passing the critical threshold of 2°C, we can only emit between 800 to 880 gigatonns of carbon total. (As of 2011, 530 gigatonns were emitted.)

What would happen if we reach the critical threshold? Even if the world could stay just under a mean temperature increase of 2°C, there will still be radical changes to ecosystems–particularly in those that already experience extreme environments. Exceeding this temperature will negatively impact food production and plant and animal biodiversity

The IPCC report is a part of the scientific foundation for the U.N.’s negotiations for a new climate deal, which could happen by 2015; however, the U.S. and Chinese governments need to be willing to reduce their emissions to a point where it will be beneficial.

The report is based on scientific literature and technical information from thousands of sources, and the final product was written by 209 lead authors and 50 Review Editors from 39 different countries.

Other highlights from the Summary for Policymakers include:

  • Each of the last three decades has been warmer on the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850.
  • Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) have increased to levels unprecedented in the last 800,000 years.
  • Since pre-industrial times, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has increased by 40 percent, due to burning fossil fuels.
  • It is extremely likely that more than 50 percent of the warming since 1951 is due to the increase in greenhouse gases and other human activities together.
  • Human influence on the climate system is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, documented warming, and understanding of the climate system.
  • The ocean has absorbed about 30 percent of the emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide, causing ocean acidification.

The occurrence of climate change, and the cause has gone beyond scientific consensus to global political recognition. This report mounts pressure for governments to support policies with new technologies that prevent a future global catastrophe. The repercussions of climate change aren’t just Minnesota summers becoming as hot as Florida’s; the UN report indicates that warming in the climate system is unequivocal, and it is time for policymakers on all levels of government to recognize this.

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