When the world’s foremost authority on climate change (1500 reviewing scientists from 47 countries) released its most recent findings, I was pleased that several friends and family members -– who are not climate experts –- told me they had heard about it.
They could even recall the major “so whats” from this ground-breaking snapshot on climate science. Good, I thought –- we are making progress at communicating this complex and scary issue –- even when the information is coming from the “IPCC.”(Never mind what it stands for! Or that they’ve dubbed the report “AR5,” shorthand for the uncompelling “Assessment Report 5″).
As someone who spent several years working to apply solutions from nature to address global climate change, I have become familiar with lots of acronyms (among them UNFCCC, GHG, PPM, COP, CO2 and REDD). And I recognize, as do many experts on climate change, that to make progress on addressing this major global challenge, we must move away from the alphabet-soup of technical shorthand, and embrace language that is simple, compelling and meaningful to people around the world.
Luckily, with two uber-curious girls at home who are learning about science and how the world works (my 2nd grader is studying weather and my 4th grader is on the solar system), I often find myself trying to translate complex topics in terms they will understand –- good practice for explaining the abstract and sometimes dizzying concepts around climate change.
In case you missed the IPCC report (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -– if you must know), here’s a quick translation of a few major findings (below in bold) – just in time for the opening of the annual global climate negotiations (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) in Warsaw, Poland next week.
1. “Warming in the climate system is unequivocal.” In other words, there is no doubt that the Earth is warming. No doubt. For anyone who has sought a second medical opinion, or asked two golf pros, chefs or computer technicians for advice on a complex problem, you may have noticed that “experts” rarely agree unanimously on anything. The fact that 1500 of the foremost climate scientists agree without a doubt tells you how strong the evidence is. You should be skeptical of news coverage that implies there is any doubt about whether climate change is real.
2. “Many changes have been observed… that are unprecedented over decades to millennia.” So, we are in uncharted territory. Our cities, agricultural activities, and recreational patterns are all built around predictable and relatively stable climates which are now undergoing changes we’ve never seen before –- in human history. It’s time to be prepared for the out-of-the-ordinary, from wacky weather and monster storms to extreme heat and floods.
3. Human influence on the climate system is clear. Yes, human beings have, in fact, accelerated the Earth’s warming and we are witnessing the results: warmer oceans, rising seas, melting glaciers. Be skeptical of those who question the human link: scientists have as much confidence in this connection as they do that smoking cigarettes causes cancer. The silver lining here is that we can also do something about it (see point 6).
4. Heat waves are very likely to occur more frequently and last longer. In fact, by 2100, global temperature is expected to be likely more than 2°C (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter than 1900. Though this may not seem like much, one degree makes a difference between ice and water, or rain and snow. Everything –- from whether you get snow on your ski vacation to whether roads are simply wet or downright treacherous –- is impacted by that difference. And prolonged heat waves can be deadly, especially for the young and old.
5. As the Earth warms, we expect to see currently wet regions receiving more rainfall, and dry regions receiving less. Climate extremes are expected to vary by location. From Colorado to Colombia to China, we have seen disastrous flooding and havoc-wreaking droughts in the past few years that have caused massive crop failures, economic losses, and political instability. In our globally-connected economy, impacts like these –- even when far away –- can affect our grocery baskets, retirement savings, and national security.
6. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, we need to stop causing the climate-changing carbon pollution that leads to global warming. That means limiting forest-clearing and the use of fossil fuels (coal, oil).
The good news is that ever-more options exist on this last front: electricity from renewable sources, plug-in cars, and more sustainable ranching can all help. And, if we apply human ingenuity to creating carbon-free solutions for powering our transportation, homes, and industries, I believe we will spawn new careers that help clean our air and sustain our quality of life while protecting the planet for our children and grandchildren.
Let’s talk in plain English about climate solutions, and start rolling up our sleeves to put them to work!
Sarene Marshall is a Senior Advisor for The Nature Conservancy, developing regional initiatives on Food Security, Water Security and Smart Infrastructure for the Latin America region. Opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
Image Credit: Photo courtesy Sarene Marshall (Sarene Marshall, picking strawberries with her two daughters)