Floods, fires, drought – climate extremes to intensify without action: IPCC

The IPCC says the role of human influence on the climate system is undisputed.

A Federation University researcher says the release of a global report into climate change makes for scary reading and that urgent action needs to be taken to prevent irreversible damage to the planet.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has warned that the frequency and severity of extreme weather events like droughts, floods, heatwaves and cyclones will worsen if carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions aren’t drastically cut.

The IPCC’s report has shown that greenhouse gases from human activities were responsible for a temperature rise of about 1.1°C since the pre-industrial period of 1850-1900 and that global temperatures were expected to reach or exceed 1.5°C of warming over the following decades.

Created in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the IPCC is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change and regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks.

The IPCC report is based on the work of thousands of climate scientists, with the last report released in 2014.

Federation University climate researcher Dr Savin Chand said the latest report released by the group – the Sixth Assessment Report – could be the last time the group’s efforts have the opportunity to prevent irreversible damage to the planet.

“Climate scientists have been saying for decades that the impacts of climate change are getting worse, and the latest assessment is quite scary in a sense as this could be the last IPCC report where we can take action before it’s too late,” Dr Chand said.

“The trajectory of the warming is moving up. What we have seen since the pre-industrial period – a 1.1°C rise – could continue to rise and see temperatures exceed what we call the tipping point of 1.5 to 2°C degrees warming. That could happen in the next decade or so if we don't do anything. At that point, the damage may become irreversible, regardless of future protections and actions that we might take.

“These changes in the atmosphere and the oceans gradually happen, but the momentum builds. Once it starts, you can't just stop it. For example, if we were to take action now and drastically reduce CO2 emissions today, we won’t see the impact of our actions tomorrow, it might take 20 to 30 years for it to stabilise.”

Dr Chand is working closely with the Bureau of Meteorology, where he was previously a research scientist, the CSIRO and the National Environmental Science Programme (NESP) on a project to research the impact of climate change on Australia’s environment.

He said the number and severity of extreme weather events were growing in Australia, and modelling showed these events were likely to increase. A warming climate was concerning for the outlook on bushfires and a key factor in an increase in other severe weather events like tropical cyclones and floods.

“The big worry is that these events will become a new normal. If we think about extreme events – this could be heavy rain, severe wind, drought and heat – we have already seen the impact of these in Australia and the region." Dr Savin Chand

“We had the devastating bushfires in 2019-20 and have seen droughts in other parts of the country and increasing severity of cyclones in northern Australia. We have all these compounding events – multiple events that are just going to keep increasing if action isn’t taken.

"We have to target zero emissions and invest heavily in clean energy. We have seen overseas, particularly in Europe, where carmakers in the not-too-distant future won't be able to sell petrol- or diesel-powered vehicles."

The IPCC report also provided new estimates of the chances of crossing the global warming level of 1.5°C in the next decades. It said that if there were no “immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions”, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C would be beyond reach.

“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,” IPCC Working Group I Co-Chair Valérie Masson-Delmotte said in the report.

“We now have a much clearer picture of the past, present and future climate, which is essential for understanding where we are headed, what can be done, and how we can prepare.”

Related reading:

How a warming climate is increasing bushfire risks

Fewer cyclones – but they’re getting more intense

Our fired landscape – why things are different now

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