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Expert: Nothing new in UN climate report, but it’s still concerning

When the United Nations released a new report warning the consequences of climate change will strike much sooner and more severe than expected, it caused alarm and a bevy of headlines.

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But University of Washington atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass shrugged it all off.

“They are talking about terrible things that will happen at specific temperatures. I don’t think that is quite honest,” Mass said. “There is no magic change that will happen at 1.5 or 2 degrees. The Earth is warming due to greenhouse gasses and there are going to be impacts. I think they are trying to stir people to action by repackaging information that was out there before.”

In other words, there is no reason to panic about the recent, dire climate change report. We can all go back to panicking over what we should have been concerned about in the first place — climate change.

Climate change in context

Mass teaches atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington. He regularly runs afoul of most people on the topic of climate change, no matter what their stance is. He frustrates people who warn of climate change by promoting a science-based view, which is not always so alarming (such as saying one tree in Seattle was not killed by global warming). And he frustrates climate change deniers by saying that it actually does exist and humans have greatly contributed to it.

Mass argues that there are no set tipping points — specific things that will happen at certain measurements and times. But the Earth is certainly warming. This should prompt action in response, and in preparation for the consequences. But the climatologist also stresses being accurate about the facts and the science around climate change.

“Basically, there’s nothing new in (the UN report),” Mass said. “It’s just repackaging things we’ve heard before. The planet is warming. There is very little in the way that we are not going to warm by 1.5 degrees centigrade. That’s pretty much in the bag. And we’ll probably do more than that.”

“I think this (report) was more of a device to get people to act more quickly,” he added. “…our estimates of how rapidly the Earth is warming up, and the impacts of it, nothing is really altered. This is more of a propaganda statement than a scientific document.”

Mass’ UW colleague Kristie Ebi who teaches global health doesn’t say the report is “propaganda” but she echoes some of what Mass says.

“There is no one tipping point,” Ebi told Seattle’s Morning News on KIRO Radio. “When you look at all the different systems that are affected – human health, agriculture, water security, coastal zones – for each one in each location, there are different combinations of how much the climate changes, how vulnerable that region is, and the capacity to affect change. The ‘tipping points’ will vary from place-to-place.”

“One message in the report is that people, ecosystems, livelihoods are already being affected by climate change,” she said. “Temperatures have already increased by 1 degree Celsius from pre-industrial times. That increase is already affecting us in ways we don’t appreciate, like increases in frequency and intensity of heat waves.”

Northwest and climate change

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In the Northwest, conditions will warm up more slowly than other areas of the planet — largely because the region is down (air) stream from the Pacific Ocean. But as it warms up, Mass warns, there will be consequences. Less snow pack, for example, will not only mean a shorter skiing season, it will mean less water storage. Mass says that the second half of the century will warm up more considerably than the first. The summers will be drier, which can influence wildfire potential — also worsened by decades of poor forest management.

“Finally, the sea level rise,” Mass points out. “That’s really going to depend on where you are. Some places around here, like on the northwest coast of our state, sea level is not rising. That has to do with glaciers we lost about 15,000-20,000 years ago … Long Beach is going to see a rise. Probably in the order of 1-2 feet by the end of the century. Those are thing we’ve been talking about for years and nothing has changed.”

Ebi notes that Seattle and Washington state have been leaders in preparing for the consequences of climate change.

“We need to take even more action and build on what has already been done,” she said.

“As a country we would reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and we would undertake what we call ‘adaptation,'” Ebi said of what should be done. “We would help individuals and communities prepare for these changes. For example, by implementing heat wave early warning systems.”

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