IPCC report calls out misinformation as barrier to tackling climate crisis in North America

‘Denial and delay are not strategies, they are a recipe for disaster,’ says US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry

Louise Boyle
Senior Climate Correspondent, New York
Monday 28 February 2022 15:10 GMT
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Misinformation and political divisions over science have hampered much-needed climate action in North America, according to a landmark United Nations report.

The second chapter of the sweeping assessment from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the most authoritative look at global climate change, was released on Monday.

It says that the “unequivocally” human-caused climate crisis is dangerously disrupting the natural world and has left about half the people on the planet highly vulnerable to impacts.

Follow the latest on the IPCC report and reaction across the globe.

And for the first time, the IPCC report, which is signed off by 195 governments before release, took an in-depth look at the role that climate change misinformation is playing in North America.

In an email, Dr Sherilee Harper, an IPCC lead author and Canada Research Chair in Climate Change and Health at the University of Alberta, told The Independent: “Evidence assessed in the report shows how strong party affiliation and partisan opinion polarization can contribute to delayed climate action, most notably in the USA, but also in Canada.”

The IPCC report found that vested interests have undermined science, downplaying the risk and urgency of the climate crisis, and “created polarization in public and policy domains”.

Dr Max Holmes, executive director at Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts, told The Independent that he was glad to see the IPCC calling out climate misinformation, calling it “super important”.

“We lead the world in vested interests generating rhetoric and misinformation that undermines climate science,” he said.

Climate misinformation has had heightened attention in the US in recent weeks. The streaming platform, Spotify, was forced to confront the issue, along with Covid misinformation, after a series of guests on Joe Rogan’s hit podcast made false and inaccurate statements.

During an interview last month Dr Jordan Peterson, a Canadian clinical psychologist who is not a climate scientist, told Mr Rogan’s millions of listeners that “there’s no such thing as climate” then falsely claimed that “more people die every year from solar energy than from nuclear”.

In US Congress, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform has been calling on chief executives and board members of the US’s largest oil companies to testify in an investigation into the fossil fuel industry’s alleged long-running campaign to spread climate disinformation and greenwash its role in causing global warming.

Last week, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy hosted a virtual roundtable with some of America’s most prominent climate scientists to discuss how arguments for delaying action on climate change can be countered effectively.

In a statement US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry said that the IPCC report “paints a dire picture” about climate change impacts already occurring and the terrible risks ahead “if we continue to ignore science”.

“Denial and delay are not strategies, they are a recipe for disaster,” Secretary Kerry said. “Fortunately, we have a blueprint for action. The best scientists in the world have shown us that we must accelerate adaptation action, with urgency and at scale.”

The IPCC report says the world faces unavoidable climate impacts over the next two decades with global warming on track to exceed 1.5C (2.7F) above pre-industrial levels.

Even temporarily exceeding this warming level will result in more severe impacts, some of which will be irreversible.

North America is facing accelerating climate change hazards, and Indigenous Peoples, low-income and historically marginalized communities are the most vulnerable.

Climate-linked extreme events have battered North America in the past year from the Pacific Northwest’s deadly heatwave, Western wildfires and megadrought, and powerful storms like Hurricane Ida. Their cascading impacts are increasingly difficult to manage.

Communities in low-lying coastal cities are particularly at risk, the IPCC report says, from sea-level rise and hurricanes.

Increased heatwaves, droughts and floods are already exceeding plants’ and animals’ tolerance thresholds, driving mass mortalities in species such as trees, and amplifying threats to protected species.

Climate-driven declines will continue to impact food security and intensify losses of key US crops and livestock. Marine species are expected to decline or shift to different areas as ocean acidification and marine heatwaves increase.

Heavy exploitation of limited water supplies, especially in the US Western and northern Mexico, will lead to heightened impacts and risks.

Risks can be reduced by adaptation over the coming decades but plans must be ramped up and transformational, the authors noted. At the same time, planet-heating carbon emissions need to be slashed.

Since the last IPCC report in 2014, experts can now assess many more adaptation strategies - those which have worked, and those with unintended negative consequences.

One example of so-called “maladaptation” is seawalls. While a seawall may help protect people from coastal flooding in one location, it’s possible that the same structure can negatively impact others living further down the shore, or have adverse consequences during an extreme rain event.

Dr Holmes said that he hoped the IPCC report would inspire more “thoughtful” adaptation strategies. “You can do things that are worse than doing nothing,” he noted.

The first chapter of the sixth IPCC assessment was published last August and revealed that “it is more likely than not” that the world will reach 1.5C sometime over the next 20 years. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called the report a “code red for humanity”.

The third section of the report will focus on mitigation - what needs to be done to limit planet-heating emissions - and is expected at the beginning of April.

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