Flooded street

News of the short-term climate catastrophe scientists say the world now faces first came over the weekend of October 6-7. That’s just as many across the U.S. were already consumed by “breaking news” of an entirely different sort – the confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice, Brett Kavanaugh.

(It was, mercifully, nearly a full week before rapper Kanye West’s bizarre visit to President Trump at the White House sucked much of the air out of the shrinking “serious” news hole. Not to mention the “horseface” brouhaha.)

Major broadcast networks and cable news stations, and what remains of serious daily newspapers soon were giving earnest play to the latest IPCC report, and expressing substantial levels of concern.

For those who somehow missed it, a quick catch-up: The news from IPCC scientists gathered from across the world was indeed serious, and troubling to all but those wanting to still play the “hoax” card. A few samplings from the report:

  • “Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
  • Limiting the warming to 1.5 rather than to 2 degrees C will provide “clear benefits to people and natural ecosystems…, ensuring a more sustainable and equitable society.” That is, there’s a big difference in that one-half degree C in terms of adverse impacts.
  • “We are already seeing the consequences of 1-degree C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels, and diminishing arctic sea ice, among other changes.”
  • “By 2100, global sea-level rise would be 10 cm [nearly four inches] lower with global warming of 1.5 C compared with 2 C.”
  • “Likelihood of an Arctic Ocean free of sea ice in summer would be once per century with global warming of 1.5 C, compared with at least once per decade with 2 C.”
  • “Coral reefs would decline by 70-90 percent with global warming of 1.5 C whereas virtually all (>99 percent) would be lost with 2C.”

‘Rapid-far reaching transitions’ needed …


It’s that very important distinction – between the stated goal of limiting warming to no more than 2 degrees C and the “aspirational” goal of capping warmth at 1.5 degrees C – that strikes many as a particularly valuable contribution of the new report. It ends up there’s a B I G difference indeed in term of the severity of impacts between 1.5 and 2 degrees C.

But there’s more too.

Achieving that 1.5-degree C maximum warming threshold means “rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities,” with global net human-caused emissions of CO2 falling by roughly 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 … to “net zero” around 2050.

“Any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air,” meaning geoengineering and so-called “negative emissions.”

… and ‘unprecedented’ effort

So what will be required of collective humanity across seven continents? Nothing less than an “unprecedented” effort, the IPCC report concludes at one point … an effort like none other and having “no documented historic precedent.”

All of which left many-a seasoned and jaded, and often rightly skeptical, headline writer and editor gasping for superlatives. NPR All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly, for instance, on October 9 advanced the story on the report by saying “It’s hard to imagine a scarier set of headlines” than those reporting on the new IPCC report. She gave three examples:

  • “The World Stands on the Brink of Failure”;
  • “Final Call”; and
  • “Most Extensive Warning Yet”.

There were numerous other examples of powerful headlines, as shown by this sampling:

  • USA Today: “UN report: ‘Unprecedented changes’ needed to protect Earth from global warming”;
  • Forbes: “Wake up and Smell the Forest Fires”;
  • New York Times: “Dire climate warming lands with a thud on Trump’s desk”;
  • Wall Street Journal: “U.N. panel warns drastic action needed to stave off climate change”;
  • Los Angeles Times: “‘Incredibly grim’ prognosis on global warming also carries clarion call for global action”; and
  • Washington Post: “The world has just over a decade to get climate change under control, U.N. scientists say”.

Report called ‘dire, desperate, beyond urgent’

Closing his weekday evening MSNBC “11th Hour” program, veteran anchor Brian Williams said the IPCC report was “more than some people could take today.” Williams said the report “paints a dire picture, it’s desperate in fact, and it’s beyond urgent.” He quoted the “no documented historic precedent” line and reported that impacts projected “as early as 2040″ would come well within the lifetimes of many in his TV audience.

“It’s useful to remember that in this season of playoffs,” Williams said, “nature always bats last.”

Even more pointedly, Williams’ broadcast colleague, Phillip Mena, co-host of NBC’s daily early-morning program, “Early Today,” concluded the October 8 program with these words: “A hundred years from now, they’ll be asking why every news cast every day wasn’t focused on climate change.”

Plus there was one more prominent sign of the high level of interest in the report from the mainstream news media, this time from CBS’s long-running “60 Minutes.” In her lengthy sit-down interview with President Trump, broadcast on October 14, 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl opened by probing the President on whether he considers climate change a “hoax,” a term he has use in the past.

“I think something’s happening,” Trump replied. “Something’s changing and it’ll change back again. I don’t think it’s a hoax, I think there’s probably a difference,” the official network transcript reads. “But I don’t know that it’s manmade. I will say this. I don’t wanna give trillions and trillions of dollars. I don’t wanna lose millions and millions of jobs. I don’t wanna be put at a disadvantage.”

“They say that we had hurricanes that were far worse than what we just had with [hurricane] Michael,” Trump said. “Look, scientists also have a political agenda.”

With the President at times saying he was “not denying” climate change, Stahl at one point countered “But that’s denying it.” Hers is a sentiment most respected climate scientists, having heard the dialogue, would likely agree with.

All of which may beg the serious question of … So what? How might the latest IPCC warning, far from the first, but clearly the loudest, to ring the proverbial clarion call of concern register in the public’s consciousness? How will numerous concerning headlines and sobering news reports affect, if at all, the body politic and, theoretically at least, their public leaders and officials? Will these be just more examples of climate warnings heard, but not listened to? Or will they at last find resonance transcending the already “concerned” citizens and stretching to the halls of their leaders?

On those points, and not surprisingly at this stage, the jury is still out. And once again, time – the enemy of those insisting it’s already in short supply in terms of heading-off the most serious climate impacts – will tell. Stay tuned.

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Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...