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Of Peril and Hope

On August 9, 2021, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the 6th Assessment ReportThis is the physical science report, the latest in a series by the world’s top climate scientists. The report confirms – with a high degree of confidence - how rapidly the earth’s climate has changed over the past century.

The change has been in response to increased emissions of heat-trapping gasses such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, heatwaves, and storms have increased around the world. Furthermore, these changes are impacting the physics, biology, and chemistry of our planet’s land, oceans, and ice sheets. New research shows that many of these changes are especially evident in the Northeast. The IPCC report states that:

  • “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land”

  • “The scale of recent changes across the climate system… are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years.”
  • “Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe.”

The report concludes, “Many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level.” With all of this, it is tempting to consider the climate change problem simply too large or the time too late to fix.  But for all the dire findings, hope is also evident. When addressing possible climate futures, the report notes, “Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.”

Deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions are exactly what the signatories of the Paris Agreement have agreed to. Especially encouraging is that the agreement works on a 5- year cycle of increasingly ambitious climate action – it gets tougher with time. The results of this agreement are visible everywhere. The European Union as well as CA and NY propose banning the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035. Ford, GM, and Stellantis plan for 40-50% of their annual U.S. vehicles to be electric by 2030. China has promised to stop financing coal power abroad. Investments are moving to secure a lower carbon future.

Meanwhile, we have the tools and technology, today, to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Increasingly, local, state, and federal agencies as well as private and publicly held corporations are creating Climate Action Plans and Net Zero goals that relay on a host of proven natural and engineered solutions to reduce carbon emissions and to increase carbon uptake by the landscape. And increasingly, these same groups are suggesting ways to adapt to a changing climate, both to avoid negative impacts, but also to take advantage of new opportunities that present themselves under novel climate conditions.


By Lindsey Rustad, Co-Director, and David Hollinger, Director, USDA Northeast Climate Hub