All Things Considered

New U.N. climate report is a ‘gut punch.’ What can Minnesotans do?

a field of brown grass
A northern Minnesota cattle pasture near Lancaster, Minn., has turned brown in the summer heat and drought.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News file

A United Nations report released this week paints a dire picture of global climate change and the effects that it's already having on the planet.

The report says that while it's too late to avoid some devastating impacts, there's still a chance for countries to act quickly to prevent a worse scenario.

Who wrote the report, and what does it say?

The report was released Monday by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. It was authored by more than 200 climate scientists and is based on more than 14,000 studies.

The report says unequivocally that humans have warmed the planet — by more than 1 degree Celsius, or 2 degrees Fahrenheit, since pre-industrial times. 

And it says this warming is speeding up. Global surface temperature has risen faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period in the last 2,000 years.

The scale of this climate change is unprecedented, and it's causing extreme weather events around the globe. 

The report also says some of these changes are unavoidable, and there is a shrinking window to act to avoid worse impacts.

Without large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures are expected to increase by 1.5 degrees Celsius or more in the next two decades from pre-industrial levels.

What does the report say about how events like droughts or wildfires are connected to climate change?

This has been a year of weather extremes here in Minnesota and around the world. 

More clearly than in the past, the IPCC report ties global warming to individual weather events, like heat waves or tropical storms. It's known as attribution science, and it has improved since previous IPCC reports. 

Scientists can say with certainty that humans are causing changing and more extreme weather patterns. And they now have much more confidence in analyzing a weather event and determining if global warming made it more likely to have occurred.

“There are now increasingly clear connections and higher confidence that the severity and the duration and the changing patterns we're seeing in these extreme events can be directly tied, at least in part, to this human-caused warming of the planet,” said Heidi Roop, an assistant professor of climate science at the University of Minnesota.

Host Cathy Wurzer talks with U of M climate scientist Heidi Roop

How are Minnesota climate scientists reacting to the report?

MPR News checked in with Roop and also Kenny Blumenfeld, a senior climatologist with the state Department of Natural Resources about what the report means in our state.

Both say it doesn’t contain any big surprises — that the report confirms research they've been doing and talking about for several years and their observations of changes to Minnesota's climate.

"Minnesota has spent much of the past five decades getting wetter and also getting warmer and seeing more extreme precipitation,” said Blumenfeld. “And those are all things that are essentially in the observational part of the study, verified by the report.”

Blumenfeld says although Minnesota is seeing more precipitation overall, as the temperature warms, it’s also more prone to dry periods like the current one the state is experiencing.

“So even though our climate is most likely to keep getting wetter, or at least keep having more precipitation, we still expect episodes of severe drought in the future, because of the expected and projected increases and extremes of heat,” he said.

Even though there aren't a lot of big reveals in the report, even climate scientists say it's really sobering to read in such clear and dire language. Roop called the report a "gut punch" and also a wake-up call.

"I think the key takeaway is that, as many people are experiencing across the globe right now, we are squarely living in an era of extremes,” she said. “And the time to sit idly by and hope for a different outcome in relation to climate change is long gone." 

Roop said the report makes clear that while certain amounts of temperature change and sea-level rise are essentially locked in, it's still up to humans to determine how bad it really gets.

Can individual actions make a difference?

The problem of climate change can seem overwhelming and can leave people feeling helpless. 

The IPCC report is aimed at policymakers, and it's clear that some big sweeping changes would be needed to curb fossil fuel use to really slow down these trends.

But scientists say that doesn't mean that people should just throw their hands up in the air and give up. They say it’s important that people make their voices heard and hold policymakers and companies accountable for addressing the problem.

“We have basically a decade to make some very different choices about our energy economy about how it is that we live and work and interact on this planet,” Roop said.

She noted some recent state-level action with beneficial climate impacts, including funding for farmers to plant cover crops and schools to add solar panels and a “clean car” rule requiring carmakers and dealers to provide more electric vehicles to Minnesota consumers.

Individual actions also can make a difference — like being more conscious of energy consumption, driving less and walking more and buying less stuff, Blumenfeld said.

“It's all of these things, and we probably need to up our game,” he said. “Because what this report tells us is that we really haven’t met our benchmarks. We haven't gotten to where we're supposed to be, and so now we're in a more dire situation.”