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IPCC 1.5 Report: A Climate Change Teachable Moment

On November 15th, dozens of students and faculty braved the snow to gather, reflect and discuss climate change in light of the recently published “IPCC 1.5°C report”. Sitting casually on the stage and among the audience, the 10 panelists represented areas of environmental science, public policy, engineering, architecture, and law, from both the faculty and student bodies, providing a necessary multigenerational and transdisciplinary approach to a complex subject.

Opening the event, Bronwen Konecky [climate scientist and Assistant Professor in Earth and Planetary Sciences], walked the audience through the role and composition of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the scientific body that published the report. After emphasizing the robustness of the report, which was written by hundreds of leading scientists assessing thousands of published literature, Bronwen Konecky shared some key findings of the document.

The 1.5°C report, also known as Special Report 1.5 (SR1.5), compares the impacts of a 1.5°C temperature rise versus a 2°C temperature rise (above pre-industrial levels) on human and environmental health. The report finds that a temperature increase as small as 0.5°C could lead to significantly greater risks such as: more variable and more frequent extreme weather events (rainfall, droughts, etc.), disease and fatalities from heat (especially in cities), reduced cereal crop yield, increased water stress (the number of people exposed to water stress could be up to 50 percent lower at 1.5°C vs 2°C), species loss and extinction, and more.

Understanding the dramatic impacts that a potential 2°C warming could have on the planet and its inhabitants reinforces the urgency to reduce our emissions in order to limit warming to 1.5°C. This would entail unprecedented transformations of energy, land, urban and industrial systems, including measures to achieve “negative emissions” and carbon neutrality by around 2050.

The first questions that the panelists faced touched on the balance between mitigation and adaptation. Indeed, while the report anticipates the consequences of warmer temperatures and recommends pathways to mitigate the greenhouse gas effect, climate change is already happening with increasing impacts on individuals and communities alike. Adaptation efforts are often associated with or prioritized in places directly exposed to climate disasters or directly experiencing the impacts of climate change, as Beth Martin [Senior Lecturer in Environmental Studies and Associate Director of the WU Climate Change Program] explained.

The conversation then transitioned naturally to the disproportionate impacts of climate change across socio-economic status and races, and the equity issues this disproportion raises. Many students in the audience raised their voices to point out the inequitable distribution of resources for disaster resiliency and recovery among populations. Concerns were shared about the inadequate policies that have recently been adopted in response to climate-related migrations, displacements, and refugees.

Toward the end of the event, the conversation re-focused on the original topic of the day: the IPCC 1.5°C report. As Beth Martin explained, the 1.5°C report was originally requested in 2015 by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change with the adoption of the Paris Agreement (COP 21) with the hope to push the parties to the Paris Agreement participating countries (currently 184 parties) to adopt more ambitious commitments dubbed Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The purpose of the special report is to assess what a 1.5 degree world would look like as well as the different ways in which temperature rise could be limited to 1.5 degrees. This will help policymakers as they look to develop more ambitious national commitments.

After a brief addition from Phil Valko [Associate Vice Chancellor for Sustainability], who presented the commitments and efforts made by WashU to decrease emissions and operate more sustainably, the discussion was brought to a close – thirty minutes over the official stop time. The unexpectedly high attendance and enthusiastic audience input demonstrated the eagerness and need for more opportunities to reflect on what Chancellor Mark Wrighton has called “[one of] the greatest challenges facing our planet”.

The event was hosted by the WashU Climate Change Program (WUCCP), which aims to expand education and public understanding of climate change by connecting and informing a global network of institutions, scholars, practitioners, and citizens. The WUCCP is also responsible for sending a WashU observer delegation to the annual Conference of Parties (COP) and to accompany student delegates through this experience. This year, ten WashU students have been selected to attend the 24th Conference, which will be held in Katowice, Poland from December 3-14. Follow WUSTL at COP on Facebook for live updates from the WashU delegation attending the Conference and learn more at the delegation’s website, Following the Climate Negotiations.

The panel was composed of:

Further learning: