Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Scientists are also observing changes across the whole of Earth’s climate system; in the atmosphere, in the oceans, ice floes, and on land.

Many of these changes are unprecedented, and some of the shifts are in motion now, while some – such as continued sea level rise – are already ‘irreversible’ for centuries to millennia, ahead, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

IPCC is the UN body for assessing the science related to climate change.

But there is still time to limit climate change, IPCC experts say. Strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases, could quickly make air quality better, and in 20 to 30 years global temperatures could stabilize.

‘Code red for humanity’

The UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the Working Group’s report was nothing less than “a code red for humanity. The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable”.

He noted that the internationally-agreed threshold of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels of global heating was “perilously close. We are at imminent risk of hitting 1.5 degrees in the near term. The only way to prevent exceeding this threshold, is by urgently stepping up our efforts, and persuing the most ambitious path.

“We must act decisively now, to keep 1.5 alive.”

The UN chief said that solutions were clear. “Inclusive and green economies, prosperity, cleaner air and better health are possible for all, if we respond to this crisis with solidarity and courage”, he said.

He added that ahead of the crucial COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November, all nations – especially the advanced G20 economies – needed to join the net zero emissions coalition, and reinforce their promises on slowing down and reversing global heating, “with credible, concrete, and enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)” that lay out detailed steps.

Human handiwork

The report, prepared by 234 scientists from 66 countries, highlights that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years.

In 2019, atmospheric CO2 concentrations were higher than at any time in at least 2 million years, and concentrations of methane and nitrous oxide were higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years.

Global surface temperature has increased faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over a least the last 2,000 years. For example, temperatures during the most recent decade (2011–2020) exceed those of the most recent multi-century warm period, around 6,500 years ago, the report indicates.

Meanwhile, global mean sea level has risen faster since 1900, than over any preceding century in at least the last 3,000 years.

The document shows that emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are responsible for approximately 1.1°C of warming between 1850-1900, and finds that averaged over the next 20 years, global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5°C of heating.

Time is running out

The IPCC scientists warn global warming of 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century. Unless rapid and deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades, achieving the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement “will be beyond reach”.

The assessment is based on improved data on historical warming, as well as progress in scientific understanding of the response of the climate system to human-caused emissions.

“It has been clear for decades that the Earth’s climate is changing, and the role of human influence on the climate system is undisputed,” said IPCC Working Group I Co-Chair, Valérie Masson-Delmotte. “Yet the new report also reflects major advances in the science of attribution – understanding the role of climate change in intensifying specific weather and climate events”.

Extreme changes

The experts reveal that human activities affect all major climate system components, with some responding over decades and others over centuries.

Scientists also point out that evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and their attribution to human influence, has strengthened.

They add that many changes in the climate system become larger in direct relation to increasing global warming.

This includes increases in the frequency and intensity of heat extremes, marine heatwaves, and heavy precipitation; agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions; the proportion of intense tropical cyclones; as well as reductions in Arctic Sea ice, snow cover and permafrost.

The report makes clear that while natural drivers will modulate human-caused changes, especially at regional levels and in the near term, they will have little effect on long-term global warming.