‘We Have a Chance.’ Climate Scientists Weigh in on IPCC Report

UC Davis Climate Experts on Moving Forward with Open Eyes and Urgency

Map of North America showing multiple hurricanes and smoke events
Multiple hurricanes and smoke events are seen churning and billowing in this NASA Observatory image from August 18, 2021. (NASA Earth Observatory)

UC Davis climate scientists voiced their thoughts today about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment in a webinar hosted by the UC Davis Climate Adaptation Research Center. Below are some of their lightly edited, key takeaways from the influential United Nations report.

There is hope and urgency. 

Kathryn Conlon, epidemiologist with the School of Public Medicine and School of Veterinary Medicine: “The report didn’t have many scientific surprises but what has been glossed over is that we have a chance. It’s easy to get stuck in the details, but we have the opportunity to limit the change of what we’re in now.”

“Things are happening, and we need to act.” -- Mark Lubell, social scientist 

Mark Lubell, social scientist in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy: “We have climate change here right now. Mitigating that requires unprecedented levels of collective action. Even if we magically reduce our carbon emissions to zero , there are climate change effects that will be locked in for decades or even, as in the case of sea level rise, centuries. I’m worried about our capacity to engage in that level of collective action. It hasn’t happened yet despite the increasing evidence of it in the IPCC report and in our faces as people in California are experiencing wildlife and smoke and people in New Orleans are experiencing an insane hurricane. Things are happening and we need to act.”

Hurricane Ida comes ashore in Lousiana, satellite image map of region
Hurricane Ida comes ashore in Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2021. (NASA Earth Observatory)

We have precise evidence of climate change.

Helene Margolis, environmental epidemiologist, UC Davis Health. “This report shows the evidence is even more robust now. There’s literally no wiggle room. We have to act and we have to act collectively now.”

Erwan Monier, associate professor of climate change impacts in the department of Land, Air and Water Resources. “[The report] identifies the large changes we have experienced, like warming of oceans, but also has the capability to attribute those changes, like extreme weather, to human activity. That’s an improvement on the previous IPCC reports.”

Fraser Shilling, director of the Road Ecology Center, Department of Environmental Science and Policy. He says the report helps solidify modeling projections for sea level rise and other changes. “There are definite improvements in knowing what the changes are and what they will be.”

A shift toward adaptation is underway.

John Largier, oceanographer, department of Environmental Science and Policy. “In the past, we thought we could address this through emissions reductions, and those days are gone. This is the long game now. We’re shifting more to adaptation at the same time as [taking] emissions action.”

“This is the long game now.” -- John Largier, oceanographer

Lubell: “What’s the balance between mitigation and adaptation? That, to me, is the greatest  question. If we have $1 to spend on climate change out of our global budget, how do we split that for adaptation and mitigation? For me, the more we see these extreme events happening, the more we need to shift our money toward adaptation. That doesn’t mean no money on mitigation, but what is that fraction? That’s a crucial thing that hasn't been studied or modeled very well, and there’s far from political agreement on its answer.” 

Monier: “The window for action is closing. A lot of climate change impacts we’re already feeling will get worse, but that doesn’t prevent us from trying our best to prevent these future changes.”

Smoke and haze inundate the air above the surface of Lake Tahoe in August 2021
Wildfire smoke and haze hover above the surface of Lake Tahoe in August 2021. (Katie Senft, UC Davis Tahoe Environmnental Research Center)

It’s important to engage with vulnerable communities earlier, better and with more humility. 

Conlon: “As we saw with COVID-19, where we sometimes fail is to not think about the readiness of the community to uptake an intervention and change their behaviors. So you have to really try to understand the community. ... We’re seeing now with Hurricane Ida people asking, ‘Why do communities along the coast stay and rebuild?’ I would urge people to ask, ‘What is it about the community that encourages them to stay?’ Is it resources? Identity? If we want change--and we do-- we have to be considerate of the populations we work with so when we suggest change it’s really thoughtful.”

Lubell: “There are a lot of communities more vulnerable to climate change who have a lower adaptive capacity because of structural racism, a long history of disadvantages, [and other challenges.] They’re often more vulnerable to COVID-19, the housing crisis -- it all intersects and makes it difficult. You have to engage early. In-person relationships are really important, not just through a web portal. It takes a long time. You shouldn’t treat all the environmental justice communities as one block; they have lots of differences between them. They constantly get asked to participate in things without enough compensation, so we need resources to fund them and get them engaged. Those are some lessons I’ve learned while working with Bay Adapt. These are incredibly important and difficult issues we have to face with climate adaptation.”

Margolis: “I cannot overemphasize the importance of co-creating interventions and co-creating knowledge. Working with communities and having that trust but also really understanding how to work with them. It’s not just about language translation, but cultural translation and cultural humility.”

The panelists also discussed the importance of understanding compounding climate change events and their interconnectedness, taking local action for global change, and other ideas about where we go from here. Learn more details at http://climateadapation.ucdavis.edu.  


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Kat Kerlin is an environmental science writer and media relations specialist at UC Davis. She’s the editor of the “What Can I Do About Climate Change?” blog. kekerlin@ucdavis.edu. @UCDavis_Kerlin

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