Ice sheets are melting, glaciers are shrinking and the planet’s oceans are changing in “unprecedented” ways, according to a shocking new report the United Nations released Wednesday, the latest confirmation that climate change is already wreaking havoc around the globe.
The findings, published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, the leading U.N. body studying human-caused global warming, issue stark warnings for hundreds of millions of people living in low-lying or coastal areas and come amid a renewed call from scientists who say the planet is quickly running out of time to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.
At a news conference Wednesday in Monaco, IPCC Vice Chair Ko Barrett said the world’s oceans have acted “like a sponge, absorbing carbon dioxide and heat to regulate the temperature.”
“But it can’t keep up,” she said. “These changes show that the world’s ocean and cryosphere have been taking the heat from climate change for decades; the consequences for nature and humanity are sweeping and severe.”
“What is at stake,” she said, “is the health of ecosystems, wildlife and importantly the world we leave for our children.”
The report was written by more than 100 scientists from 30-plus countries, and is the third such paper published by the IPCC over the past year (an August report focused on protecting land, and one last October found time was rapidly running out to avoid catastrophic warming).
“Each year that we delay action, ocean waters warm and become more acidic. This fuels hurricanes, kills coral reefs, and threatens the safety and livelihoods of the 40% of the world’s population who lives within 60 miles of the coast,” Miriam Goldstein, a director of ocean policy at the Center for American Progress, said in a statement this week. “To protect the ocean’s natural ability to store carbon, to feed billions of people across the world, and to save ocean ecosystems, we must substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible.”
The report, which focuses on the ocean and the cryosphere, or the frozen parts of the planet, comes a little more than three weeks after Hurricane Dorian slammed into the northern Bahamas as a catastrophic Category 5 storm, obliterating entire communities and flooding 70% of Grand Bahama, an island of some 50,000 people. It also comes amid worldwide calls for dramatic climate action. More than 4 million people around the globe staged mass climate strikes in thousands of cities last Friday, spurred by the 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, and many more are expected to step out again on Sept. 27.
At the same time, the planet is still far from meeting its climate goals set out in the landmark Paris Climate Agreement. In fact, global carbon emissions reached a record high in 2018, which was also the fourth hottest year ever recorded. Within the United States, the federal government under President Donald Trump has eviscerated many of the nation’s premier environmental laws and withdrawn the country from the Paris deal in favor of a rapid expansion in fossil fuels and development.
The IPCC noted that while some of the most dire impacts of climate change may not come for several decades, many are already being felt in the oceans and ice caps and are almost sure to take place by 2100 if global emissions remain unchecked. Researchers said they were “virtually certain” the oceans had warmed unabated since the 1970s, spurring acidification that has impacted biodiversity and harmed coral reefs. A widespread shrinking of the cryosphere has left large stretches of land uncovered by ice for the first time in millennia. And sea level rise is accelerating dramatically as all that ice melts.
“The science is both chilling and compelling,” Taehyn Park, a global climate political advisor with Greenpeace East Asia, said in a statement. “The impacts of human-made carbon emissions on our oceans are on a much larger scale and happening way faster than predicted. It will require unprecedented political action to prevent the most severe consequences to our planet.”
All of these dramatic effects are projected to continue, the IPCC warned, if human-caused climate change continues.
Researchers also warned that coastal communities were the most vulnerable to many “climate-related hazards, including tropical cyclones, extreme sea levels and flooding, marine heatwaves, sea ice loss and permafrost thaw.” Around 680 million people currently live in areas that would be impacted by such hazards, which the UN noted often have the least capacity to deal with climate change.
The IPCC has been ringing its warning bells loudly for years. In last year’s October report, the agency warned that the world was rapidly running out of time to address climate change and keep the planet from warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Any warming beyond that benchmark, researchers say, would unleash the worst impacts of the phenomenon. At the time, the chair of the body called the report “one of the most important” ever produced by the IPCC.
To avoid those threats, the planet would need to aggressively phase out fossil fuels by mid-century and remove carbon dioxide and other gases from the atmosphere from then on. In August, the IPCC doubled down on its findings, saying the world needed to see dramatic transformations to land management and food production as well.
Chris D’Angelo contributed to this report.
This article has been updated with comments from Ko Barrett.