The U.N.'s new climate change report.

Is it worth the hysteria?
Isaac Saul Aug 10, 2021
️I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 10 minutes.

We’re covering the U.N.’s new climate report. Plus, an important story about immigration and some quick hits.

The UN Special Representative of the Secretary General for disaster risk reduction, Margareta Wahlström, has urged governments to commit resources to building national disaster loss data bases so they can better target spending on infrastructure to avoid recurring losses and damages. Copyright: © Belspo / Nevens

Quick hits.

  1. The Pentagon announced today that all members of the military must get a Covid-19 vaccine by September 15. (Full story)
  2. The Senate is set to adopt President Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, sending it to the House and bringing Biden one step closer to a major policy achievement. (Details are out)
  3. Unfilled job openings now outnumber unemployed Americans seeking work. (CNBC)
  4. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott appealed for out-of-state help to fight Covid-19 (read the story), and just eight ICU beds remain in Arkansas as both states are battling another wave of the virus. (Get more info)
  5. The U.S. sent a peace envoy to Qatar for talks with the Taliban and said they would not recognize a government that takes control of Afghanistan by force. (Read more here)

What D.C. is talking about.

Climate change. Yesterday, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report, saying that global warming is dangerously close to spiraling out of control and that humans are “unequivocally” to blame. The report drew on more than 14,000 studies, and said that cutting greenhouse gas emissions could limit some impacts, but others are already locked in. The reports’ authors expect the severity of deadly heat waves and forceful hurricanes to increase.

Unless immediate, large-scale action to cut emissions is taken, the reports’ authors believe we will reach or cross the 1.5 Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) warming threshold scientists have warned about in the next 20 years.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called the report a “code red for humanity.” The authors of the report said many of the impacts of climate change are likely locked in.

“We are now committed to some aspects of climate change, some of which are irreversible for hundreds to thousands of years,” IPCC co-author Tamsin Edwards, a climate scientist at King’s College London, said. “But the more we limit warming, the more we can avoid or slow down those changes.”

The IPCC, established in the late 1980s, consists of thousands of scientists across 195 member governments pore over the most recent published and peer-reviewed research on global warming and compile their findings into a report on the current state of the climate. The assessment, which includes a look at the future risks and impacts of climate change, typically represents consensus within the scientific community. More than 230 authors contributed to the latest report.

This is the most comprehensive report released on climate change since the 2013 analysis, and comes before world leaders meet in Glasgow, Scotland from October 31st to November 12th, for the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference.

Below, we’ll take a look at some of the reactions from the right and left, then my take.


What the left is saying.

The left says the report is dire, and makes it clear we need to act immediately.

In The Washington Post, Eugene Robinson said “we’re out of time. It’s as simple as that.”

“If the world immediately takes bold, coordinated action to curb climate change, we face a future of punishing heat waves, deadly wildfires and devastating floods — and that’s the optimistic scenario, according to an alarming new U.N. report,” he wrote. “If, on the other hand, we continue down the road of half-measures and denial that we’ve been stuck on since scientists first raised the alarm, the hellscape we leave to our grandchildren will be unrecognizable.

“Almost 30 years ago, I covered the first ‘Earth Summit’ of world leaders in Rio de Janeiro, at which the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its initial assessment of what our spewing of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere was doing to the planet,” he wrote. “That 1992 document is modest about what researchers, at the time, could not be sure of. They admitted there was a chance they might be seeing ‘natural climate variability.’ They thought ‘episodes of high temperatures’ would become more frequent, but they couldn’t be sure. The ‘unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect’ was still in the future. The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, released Monday, makes clear there is no longer any reason to use such guarded language — and no longer any fig leaf of scientific uncertainty to shield governments or individuals who would continue to temporize.”

In The Nation, Mark Herstgaard said we can still make an enormous difference in the next 10 years, but the risks ahead are startling.

“Although 1.5° C of temperature rise will bring significantly worse impacts than those occurring today, the impacts would be dramatically more severe at 2° C and almost inconceivably more punishing if temperatures rose beyond that,” he wrote. “Extreme heat waves like the one that broiled North America’s Pacific Northwest this summer now occur five times as often as they did historically. But if temperature rise reaches 2° C, scientists concluded, such heat waves will occur 14 times as often.

“Likewise, sea levels have risen faster over the past century than they have ‘in at least 3,000 years,’ said Robert Kopp, director of the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Oceans, and Atmospheric Sciences, leading to ‘a near doubling in the frequency of coastal flooding since the 1960s.’ If emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases are unchecked, Kopp added, scientists cannot rule out two meters (almost seven feet) of sea level rise by 2100—enough to put large parts of New York, Washington, Shanghai, Lagos, and countless other coastal cities underwater,” Herstgaard wrote. “But if temperature rise is instead kept ‘well below 2 degrees C, we’re still going to have two meters of sea level rise, but it’s going to take centuries and possibly millennia,’ he explained, a much more manageable time scale for adaptation.”

In The New York Times, Kathy Castor, the chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, said the report showed why we need to focus on methane.

“An alarming new report, released today, by the United Nations-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sheds light on the urgent need to cut down on another harmful pollutant: methane,” she wrote. “Over a 20 year period, methane has more than 80 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide, making it a major contributor to the climate crisis. The new report makes it clear: If we are to keep global temperatures in check, we urgently need to focus on cutting methane pollution.”

“When every fraction of a degree counts, moving quickly to reduce this super pollutant is one of the most immediate and powerful ways to start solving the climate crisis. And because of methane’s relatively short life span — it lingers in the atmosphere for around 12 years, while carbon dioxide hangs around for hundreds of years — bringing down our methane emissions will help clear the atmosphere, helping to moderate temperatures and making a real impact on our near-term climate goal,” Castor said. “When it comes to generating electricity in the United States, increased use of so-called ‘clean’ natural gas has often made up for decreased use of carbon-intensive coal… But the natural gas we use is made up of 85 to 90 percent methane.”


What the right is saying.

The right acknowledged the report’s confidence in human-caused climate change but believes the reporting on it has been overblown and hysterical.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said “the facts in the new U.N. report aren’t as dire as its advertising.”

“The new report offers five climate scenarios based on estimates of CO2 emissions. The intermediate scenario’s ‘best estimate’ is a 1.5 degree increase by 2040 and a range of 2.1 to 3.5 by 2100. This is a highly speculative estimate on which to bet the U.S. economy. The biggest difference is the new report’s direct linkage of warming to catastrophic weather events such as hurricanes, severe heat waves or rain events, drought and so on. The summary says this is based on ‘new methodology’ and evidence, which means computer models. We await what independent climate experts say as they dig into these models… Keep in mind that the IPCC report is a political document. It is intended to scare the public and motivate politicians to reduce CO2 emissions no matter the cost, which by the way the report summary never mentions.

“No less than Al Gore admitted this on PBS in October 2018 when the IPCC issued an interim report: ‘The language the IPCC used in presenting it was torqued up a little bit, appropriately. How do they get the attention of policymakers around the world?’ Torqued up is right,” the board said. “The U.N. Secretary-General called the new report a ‘code red for humanity.’ And someone at Reuters actually wrote this sentence: ‘Further warming could mean that in some places, people could die just from going outside.’ If they really believe this, the policy response has failed miserably. Politicians have spent trillions of dollars subsidizing renewable energy with no effect on climate. Nuclear power, which would sharply reduce CO2, is taboo among the greens. Innovation in developing low-cost natural gas, which substitutes for coal, may have done more than any government policy to reduce U.S. emissions. Yet President Biden wants to crush the gas industry with regulation.”

In The New York Post, Bjorn Lomborg said “don’t buy the latest climate-change alarmism.”

“In contrast to the hyperventilating media, the report is actually serious and sensible (and very, very long),” he wrote. “It doesn’t surprise, since it is a summary of already-published studies, yet it reconfirms that global warming indeed is real and a problem…Since the heat dome in June, there has been a lot of writing about more heat deaths. And the IPCC confirms that climate change indeed has increased heatwaves. However, the report equally firmly, if virtually unacknowledged, tells us that global warming means ‘the frequency and intensity of cold extremes have decreased.’ This matters because globally, many more people die from cold than from heat. A new study in the highly respected journal Lancet shows that about half a million people die from heat per year, but 4.5 million people die from cold. As temperatures have increased over the past two decades, that has caused an extra 116,000 heat deaths each year.

“This, of course, fits the narrative and is what we have heard over and again. But it turns out that because global warming has also reduced cold waves, we now see 283,000 fewer cold deaths. You don’t hear this, but so far climate change saves 166,000 lives each year,” he said. “It also mentions climate upsides like the fact that more CO₂ in the atmosphere has acted as a fertilizer and created a profound global greening of the planet. One NASA study found that over a period of 35 years, climate change has added an area of green equivalent to twice the size of the continental United States. But don’t expect to read about this in any of the breathless articles on climate impact.”

Gerard Baker said that climate change has now “consumed journalistic standards.”

“With the definitive affirmation comes the lurid panic followed by the stern lecture: The Earth is going to combust (or drown, or freeze, or starve—the science isn’t fully settled on that yet). And it’s all our fault. Specifically, it’s all Americans’ fault for driving SUVs, cranking up the air conditioning and refusing to become vegetarian. How can we expect the Chinese to stop building 50 coal-fired power stations a month if those Republican-voting rubes in Missouri insist on eating hamburgers?

“My beef here isn’t mainly with climate extremism itself. I’m no climate scientist: I’m confident the planet is warming and that evasive action would be smart,” he wrote. “I’m less confident that a spate of historically familiar extreme weather events constitutes proof that we’re all going to burn in the next decade or that the answer lies only in the most drastic government-mandated responses, which the media will insist we must immediately adopt. Better-informed writers on these pages have put the case for a more measured judgment and approach. ‘Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters,’ a recent book by Steven E. Koonin, a scientist and former Obama administration official, provides an elegant rebuttal to much of the extremism. My concern is with the way these topics are now almost universally reported by the news media.”


My take.

The responses to this report were as predictable as could be. I’m nearly certain I could have scripted them out for you a month ago: the report states unequivocally that the environment is not doing well; liberals highlight the most dire warnings in an effort to spur action; conservatives vaguely acknowledge the report’s most troubling elements but largely focus on media criticism and hysteria; so around we go again, while most action or pertinent discussions continue to be stymied.

Let’s focus on the important stuff: humans are causing climate change and these changes are going to continue to impact our lives with greater severity. It’s the first time the IPCC has said with certainty this is the case. The past decade was likely the hottest of any period in 125,000 years (that’s about 120,000 more years than recorded human history), and in aggregate, the increase in the last 100 years is happening at a rate of change that our planet has never before experienced.

This warming, as Lomborg cleverly points out in his New York Post editorial, does not exclusively confer disaster. Some places on earth are “greener” than they were 35 years ago. Deaths from extreme cold have apparently gone down, and outnumber the deaths from extreme heat. There’s also some uncertainty in the report: scientists express low confidence in human-caused high river flows, which counters one explanation that recent flooding in Germany was the result of climate change. But Lomborg also leaves out the context of what the report is driving at, which is what’s coming — especially for more densely populated areas that haven’t seen the impacts of climate change as acutely yet. Given what we’ve seen, and where we’re trending, saving a hundred thousand lives from cold deaths will seem minuscule when compared to oceans overtaking coastal towns, food scarcity, lack of fresh water, mass migrations and the humanitarian crisis that will come from those things occurring simultaneously.

There’s also hope: scientists no longer appear to believe that runaway warming is guaranteed no matter what we do. In a hypothetical where we ended emissions overnight, current estimates forecast temperature rises would halt after about two decades. Of course, we’re not going to end emissions overnight, but that kind of drastic result-oriented change illustrates the impact we could have if we took drastic action. It’s also clear that cutting emissions of methane is critical, because while it spends far less time in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, its warming effect is much greater. That means limiting methane emissions over the short term would both slow warming in the short term and buy us more time to limit the long-term impacts of carbon dioxide emissions.

We published a climate change explainer a few weeks ago and this latest report does nothing to change the outlines of that piece. We cannot keep moving forward as we are without severely impacting the habitability of the planet. Certainly, there should be room to poke fun at a Reuters editor printing the sentence “people could die just from going outside,” but if your focus here is on media criticism you are ignoring the real story.

The report is serious, sober, and clear. Areas of the world experiencing droughts, flooding and wildfires can expect more of the same — and worsening impacts — over the next 100 years. And those events will increase tenfold, as many coastal towns and infrastructure are taken over by the sea, if we don’t take serious, coordinated, and immediate steps to reduce our emissions and prepare for the worst.


Your questions here…

We’re skipping the reader question today to make room for our main story. But if you’d like to ask a question, remember: you can reply to any email and write in. Just tell me where you’re writing from and whether it’s okay to post your name. You can also fill out this form.


A story that matters.

When he was running for office, President Biden railed against the immigration policies of Donald Trump. Now that he’s president, though, he’s defending those policies in court. Biden “has backed the expiration of certain visas, pushed for tougher requirements for investors seeking green cards, and supported the denial of permanent residency for thousands of immigrants living legally in the U.S.” While some immigration lawyers say his hands are tied, the Biden administration’s approach is wearing quickly on the patience of immigration activists and attorneys who say his team has been too passive in undoing the immigration policies of his predecessor, which he vowed to reverse. (Politico)


Numbers.

  • 24%. The percentage of Americans who say global climate change is affecting their local community “a great deal.”
  • 39%. The percentage of Americans who say global climate change is affecting their local community “some.”
  • 65%. The percentage of Americans who say the government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change.
  • 90%. The percentage of Americans who favor planting one trillion trees to absorb carbon emissions.
  • 73%. The percentage of Americans who favor taxing corporations based on their carbon emissions.
  • 71%. The percentage of Americans who favor tougher fuel efficiency standards for cars.

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Have a nice day.

A collaborative colon cancer study between four Indian institutes and one French institute has resulted in a new method for detecting it as early as stage 1, which would ensure effective recoveries in most patients. Colon cancer is notorious for being hard to detect before late-stage, and right now the common methods are CT colonography, colonoscopy and immunohistochemistry. Each has significant drawbacks, from invasiveness to low accuracy. But this new study found that six specific RNA proteins change in people’s cells when colon cancer is present. They call them ‘DNA damage sensitive microRNAs’ or DDSMs for short. “We believe that the identified DDSMs can serve as an invaluable biomarker for colon cancer early detection process,” Dr Sagar Sengupta said. “We now have to determine whether the DDSMs can also be detected in patient blood samples. If that is possible, it would make colon cancer detection as simple as the detection of blood sugar in diabetic patients.” (India Times)

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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