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August 12, 2021
Earlier this week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first portion of its Sixth Assessment Report. AR6 Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis provides the latest understanding of the climate system and climate change. This extraordinary report continues the remarkable effort of regularly assembling the most comprehensive compilation of scientific findings to clearly document the urgency of the climate crisis. We can expect that the sixth cycle, beginning with this first report, will reinforce our fundamental understanding: that the climate is changing and will continue to change due to human activities; that climate change is now leading directly to serious consequences; and that, though we do still have a chance of averting the very worst, the window has become very small.
As the other portions of AR6 are released in the coming months, we should remember that two other reports of late have brought critical understanding of the various crises facing the planet.
First, in October 2018, the IPCC Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5° C described in detail the serious consequences of that level of warming and the significant additional severity of consequences past 1.5° C. It also outlined a pathway toward staying within 1.5° C that would entail “…far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems (high confidence). These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed…”
The message was very clear. In light of the dire climate situation outlined in the report, the final analysis offered an opportunity and line of sight—fragile and vanishing—to avert the worst.
Second and more recently, a workshop co-sponsored by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the IPCC on Biodiversity and Climate Change released a report of findings linking climate change and biodiversity. Released in June of this year, the IPBES-IPCC report received some well-deserved publicity, especially for its call that international efforts be inclusive of both challenges. The linkages between the accelerating consequences of climate change and the severity of biodiversity loss are extensive and intimate. Many of the most important solutions for one also serve the other. It is time for climate action. It is also time for the international community, non-governmental organizations, major companies and entire industries, and society as a whole to act on the tragedy of the decimation of the natural world.
We encourage you to download and read the AR6 Summary for Policymakers (41 pages), if not the entire report (3,948 pages). Through the efforts of Working Group I, we know better than ever what is needed, including the critical elements that are well within the capacity and expertise of the MIT community. Through the MIT Climate Grand Challenges, the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium, and the recently released plan, Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade, an array of opportunities to contribute to solutions is now open—and the sooner the better, because 2030 is the new 2050. What we do as a society, as an institution and as individuals between now and 2030 will substantially determine our collective trajectory to the latter half of this century.
The Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC is a remarkable product by more than 200 leading climate researchers worldwide, who have been working for more than 30 years to fully understand the dynamics of climate and how to address the problem. The report just released (on August 9) brings forward by far the clearest understanding of where we are, and what we must do. It comes out just as many of us are preparing for the new academic year—a time to reflect on our choices ahead for classes, interests, and possibly career paths. And as we choose paths for ourselves, we may consider how our choices also impact our communities and the world in years to come.
In the MIT tradition, we’ve seen that informed by science, good choices come to light. With our learning and efforts, at times we find what others haven’t yet seen, and are able to contribute towards making our world a better place. Today, addressing climate, this report makes clear that sustaining the Earth requires us to transition from fossil fuel use quickly, and also that we help those most impacted by the fires, sea level rise, and extreme weather made worse by our past choices to burn fossil fuels.
However, this assessment, while deeply troubling, also clarifies that it is possible to stop climate change in time to prevent the worst effects. We need to continue to innovate, and find ways to advance everything—from our energy systems, to our home heat, travel, food systems, and waste streams, to mention a few. There is opportunity to build on the science with new and improved technology, analytics, architecture, engineering, economic, and business solutions that will get the job done, often making our lives better in the process.
As Al Gore put forward in 2017: “The true question about climate hope is not can we, but will we?” As on the first Earth Day, when a remarkable cross-section of people came together and quickly put us on a path to removing poisons from our air and water, we can again come together—we all want a good future for our Earth. But as Greta Thunberg said in 2019: “climate education is necessary to unite behind the science.” When millions joined her Friday strikes, world leaders listened to them, and many young people have been inspired to keep doing, keep learning, and keep discovering what’s necessary to solve this solvable problem.
The 2021 Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC is the clearest analysis yet that our challenge to address climate change with action is urgent, lest our favorite places might be lost in years to come—just as many today are already being driven from their homes and favorite places. But the report also invites and beckons us to be part of the solution: to apply our talents and choose to learn, act, and help others. As the report clarifies, choosing to stop the worst effects of climate change is a choice we have.