The UN climate change report is urgent, but not as dire as you might think

People use a boat to bring man out of home following a severe storm in ‘Rue de Tilff’ in Angleur, a district from Liège, Belgium. A severe storm and heavy rainfall has caused the Meuse River to flood, damaging thousands of homes and businesses. According to local reports, 23 people have died. Photo by Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

The scientific arm of the United Nations issued an urgent report on climate change this week that highlighted the human influence on the environment and projected a warmer future unless drastic measures to curb fossil-fuel emissions are taken. News organizations rang the alarm bells, with headlines that described the report’s findings as “devastating,” a “‘code red for humanity’,” and depicting “a fast-warming world where ‘nobody is safe.’

While the report shows that manmade, negative effects of climate change are now undeniable, the news isn’t all bad, says Matthew Nisbet, professor of communication, public policy, and urban affairs at Northeastern.

“I actually have a very positive outlook on this report,” says Nisbet, who studies scientific communication and who served as editor of the journal Environmental Communication.

From right to left: Matt Nisbet Professor of communication, public policy, and urban affairs at Northeastern. Couresty of Matt Nisbett. Stephen Flynn, director of the Global Resilience Institute. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Nisbet says the attention-grabbing headlines and social media posts are designed to do just that: grab our attention. But a closer read of the report—issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of scientists convened by the U.N.—reveals some promising improvements over the last several years.

The latest report estimates that the long-term temperature rise expected as the result of doubling the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—a calculation that’s known as “equilibrium climate sensitivity”—is slightly cooler than scientists predicted in their 2018 report.

And, Nisbet says, some of the most drastic consequences splashed across social media sites stem from forecasts that are more than 30 years from now; simply too far into the future to be reliable.

Additionally, technological advances have enabled countries to drop their emissions by more than scientists predicted in either 2018 or 2014. 

Stephen Flynn, founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern, is hopeful that the current crisis will inspire new technologies and techniques that can mitigate the changes already felt around the world from climate change. 

“This is clearly an opportunity for innovation in dealing with this risk, and an opportunity for us to rethink our relationship between the built and natural environment in ways that could spawn better quality of life or better outcomes,” he says. 

For example, better urban planning and development can help cool down cities and protect against floods or wildfires. And humans are ingenious at adapting to changes in their environments, Flynn says.

Even calling it a “climate crisis” reveals an opportunity, Flynn says. The word is borrowed from a Greek word meaning “turning point.” 

“This could be a turning point for the better or for the worse, and frankly neither one feels comfortable,” he says. “Human nature is such that we crave predictability, but the reality is that what inspires innovation and a willingness to take on challenges is a sense of crisis or a sense of need.”

This report, and ones like it, serve a valuable purpose beyond the science: They serve as “cultural signals” that mobilize people with a shared set of values to put pressure on policymakers, Nisbet says, but any solutions will be more complex than can fit in an Instagram post.  

“If anyone tells you they have the answer for climate change, they’re fooling themselves,” he says.

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