The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released a climate report that’s taken the headlines by storm.
The report states climate change is happening at a more rapid pace than previous models had predicted, with trajectories for three or four degree shifts in the global average temperature possible. Chicago is among the regions already seeing increased amounts of extreme heat events and winters will get warmer on average despite an uptick in polar vortex events.
The Phoenix spoke with some of Loyola’s climate scientists to break down what the report means for the world, the country and Chicago residents.
The report states that a 1.5 degree Celsius change in the Earth’s temperature is all but inevitable in the near future, but that bringing carbon emissions to zero in the coming years could bring that back down to 1.4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.
“Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered,” the report reads. “Global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius and 2 degrees Celsius will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in [carbon dioxide] and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.”
While these numbers may seem low to those not versed in climate science, Dr. Nancy Tuchman — the founding dean of Loyola’s School of Environmental Sustainability — said there’s reason to be concerned about these seemingly small numbers. Not only are the temperature changes averages for the entire Earth, meaning some places are already past these points, but the little shifts go a long way.
“It was only a couple of degrees cooler when we were in the last ice age,” Tuchman said. “So two degrees is an enormous shift when you’re looking at the overall Earth temperature.”
Effects on Global Weather
There’s more to the IPCC report than just temperature — the increased heat has major, lasting effects around the globe as well, including the weather that current and future Chicagoans face.
Dr. Ping Jing — an associate professor at Loyola’s School of Environmental Sustainability and former physical scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — said she has concerns about the report’s findings about how the world’s shifting climate will shift weather patterns.
Jing said the warming is weakening currents of air that create boundaries between pockets of warm and cold air around the world called jet streams. For the city, this means winters will be warmer on average, but polar vortex events like the ones experienced in recent years will become more frequent.
“A fast moving jet stream is like building a wall,” Jing said. “If the jet stream becomes weaker, that means this membrane becomes thinner, more permeable. The cold air is more likely to breach into lower latitudes. Similarly, warmer air is more likely to penetrate northward.”
On a larger scale, however, Jing said weather systems will stick around for extended periods of time with weaker jet streams. That means longer droughts followed by increased spans of extreme rain.
“It’s why we can have prolonged flooding and prolonged drought at the same time,” Jing said.
Effects on Infrastructure
Jing also voiced concerns about city infrastructure and its ability to handle the coming changes. Earlier this year, a heatwave in the Pacific Northwest caused railcars in Portland, Oregon to shut down due to the heat melting power cables. With the report’s findings that Chicago is among the places facing increases in extreme heat events, the city could face similar challenges with its roads, bridges and railways.
In addition to climate change’s effects on infrastructure, Jing said she’s worried about the harm that could come to structures in the face of severe weather events like tornadoes and severe thunderstorms.
But the problems go much farther than just property damage.
“There is an issue about social justice,” Jing said. “It’s my concern for the vulnerable communities. They will become even more vulnerable because of climate change. … The change is not uniform and the impact is not uniform.”
Disadvantaged communities suffer through the effects of climate change without the aid of the resources that can make it livable — or even survivable.
Recent Census Bureau statistics shows that approximately 10.5% of the country’s population lives below the poverty line. However, Chicago’s rate is nearly double that, coming in at 18.4%.
“I can afford to have increased energy bills in the summer and winter to keep myself comfortable,” Jing said. “I can install air filters inside my home to make myself breathe more comfortably. But can the most vulnerable communities afford that?”
After the pandemic increased the world’s houseless population, more places are facing the facts: climate change is life-threatening.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report showed that houselessness has increased for the fourth straight year in the United States, with nearly 40 percent of the population not having any shelter. 2020 also marked the first year that more people newly suffering from houselessness were unsheltered rather than sheltered.
The country — as well as the global community — have already begun to see the effects of this. The same heatwave that melted streetcar power lines killed 116 people in Oregon, including a beloved houseless community member, the Associated Press (AP) reported. On the other side of extreme temperatures, just a month later, Brazil was making efforts to shield its houseless population from severe cold, the AP reported.
Prolonged droughts have also put people in danger of starvation. Madagascar is currently suffering from one of the worst droughts in its history, with the current famine putting more than 400,000 residents at risk of starvation, the AP reported.
Jing said with the dire message of the report and the harsh realities of climate change today, comes a reminder that behind every number are people who have their lives permanently affected by the shifting climate.
“In the past I was just looking at a scientific plot,” Jing said. “The whole world, in one year, there’s one dot. … There are many, many peoples’ faces behind these dots and they have been affected.”
So can we fix it?
“We’ve got the know-how and the technology to get off of fossil fuels very quickly,” Tuchman said. “We just don’t have the political will.”
Though for Tuchman, hope isn’t lost. Despite the dire circumstances laid out by the report, its direct wording makes a stronger case for the science behind it and cuts out any room for disbelief.
“What stands out to me about this report is that they’re not using language that gives you any kind of doubt that this is real,” Tuchman said. “For me, that’s hopeful because it doesn’t leave room for people to doubt that this is just a theory or that this is just a model.”
With the report dropping just ahead of meetings between international leaders, such as the United Nations Climate Change Convention’s Conference of the Parties — the same place where the Paris Climate Agreement was signed by 196 countries in 2015 — Tuchman believes there’s a chance for meaningful change from global leaders.
But for Tuchman, the onus doesn’t just fall on corporations — 20 of which, according to a 2019 Climate Accountability Institute analysis, made up approximately 35% of global carbon emissions — to solve the problem at hand.
She said everyone can do their part in small ways to help as well. Small solutions — such as choosing biking or public transportation over driving — become big ones when large swaths of individuals get behind them.
“We need to do better,” Tuchman said. “Everybody needs to participate. Every tenth of a degree Celsius that we can save the planet from warming is absolutely significant to the wellbeing of current and future generations. … Whether this is in your area or not, it’s everybody’s problem.”