As It Happens·Q&A

Lawmakers 'have no excuses' not to act on UN climate report, says scientist 

Governments need to tackle climate change based on the best available evidence, and there's no better evidence than the new landmark report from the United Nations, says a Canadian scientist.

'The only way to stabilize the climate again is to move out of fossil fuels,' says contributing author

Corinne Le Quéré is a professor of climate change science and policy at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. She is a contributing author to the latest UN report on climate change. (Steve Forrest/Panos Pictures/Submitted by Corinne Le Quéré )

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Governments need to tackle climate change based on the best available evidence, and there's no better evidence than the new landmark report from the United Nations, says a Canadian scientist.

Greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere are already high enough to guarantee climate disruption for decades, if not centuries, and human activity is undoubtedly to blame, according to the latest report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The report draws on more than 14,000 scientific studies to provide the most comprehensive and detailed picture yet of how climate change is altering our world. 

While many of climate change's effects are already irreversible, the report's authors say there's still a chance to mitigate the fallout. They're calling on governments to enact ambitious climate actions at November's UN climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, and to fully end the use of coal and fossil fuels worldwide.

Corinne Le Quéré is Canadian climate scientist and Royal Society professor at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. She was an author on the previous three IPCC reports, and a contributing author on the latest one. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal. 

The first three words in this report are, quote, "It is unequivocal." Why did you want to make such a strong statement right in those first words?

Because the fact that humans are causing climate change also means that only humans can stop [it]. 

There is absolutely no doubt that the only way to stabilize the climate again is to move out of fossil fuels, to stop emitting greenhouse gases.

Given what is happening in so many parts of the world — wildfires, just one story playing out in many, many parts of the world — do you think people are paying attention?

The connection is really clear … in people's minds when you see … a changing climate with your own eyes. You kind of get a different realization of what it actually means to warm the planet in the way that we are doing now.

An elderly resident leaves her home, threatened by wildfire in the village of Gouves, on the island of Evia, Greece, on Sunday. (Konstantinos Tsakalidis/Bloomberg)

So people waking up to this reality, paying attention now. That, I suppose, is a good step. But you also point out that there are some things that are irreversible at this point. We've let it go too far.

The warming of the planet so far is irreversible over time scales, human time scales, hundreds to thousands of years. And if we continue again, many things are going to be irreversible. 

The worst is that some of the impacts of climate change will continue for a long, long time, particularly the rise of the sea level, which takes really a long time to react to a warmer climate because it takes a long time to warm the ice, because it takes a long time for the ocean to expand. And therefore, even if we were able to stop climate change, to stop the warming, we would still have a delay in this rise of sea level and associated impacts.

That's part of the reason why it is so urgent to act very rapidly to stabilize the climate so that we ensure that we are able to adapt to the full range of the impacts that are looming.

On one hand, you don't want people to be apathetic; you want them to pay attention. And news like this playing out all over the world on newscasts will help people pay more attention. But are you also worried that when they hear such dire things, that people also tune out?

There is a little bit of a risk, indeed, that too much bad news is also not good. But on the other hand, because this is the demonstration that humans are causing climate change, it also means that we are, in fact, able to do something about it. And that ability is very positive.

We have the technology. We have the means. We know what to do. Governments know what to do. There is this big UN conference, the COP26, coming out in November, where governments will get together to try and agree on new, stronger action. 

These are all positive steps. The issue here is that the action is not going fast enough, that leaders haven't realized just what you need to put in place. The timescale is really, really rapid, and this needs to sink in at the right level, and this year is the time to do it.

What do you want to see from world leaders when that summit wraps up? 

The objective for global world leaders has to be to bring the emissions down as quickly as possible. And if we can bring them down to net zero, so almost down to zero with offsetting with planting trees by 2050, this would keep climate change at about 1.5 C warming, which is probably manageable.

At the moment, too many countries have ambitious targets, but they have no plans, or no credible plans, no funding in place. 

And too often, tackling climate change is the role of the environmental ministry and not the role of the prime minister or all the ministries around the table. And that's the level where you need to bring climate action to really make a difference.

You mentioned planting trees. It sounds quite simple.

Planting trees is only one part of it, but it's a really important part because trees suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and allow for really a big difference in tackling climate change. 

But really, the core of tackling climate change is to move to renewable energy — all of our energy to renewable energy.

A lamppost stands in front of the ruins of a burned building in Lytton, B.C., on July 9, after the town was engulfed in flames following record-breaking heat. (Bethany Lindsay/CBC)

What about our individual daily lives? Are there things that we can still and should be doing?

Moving away from the standard traditional petrol and diesel car to an electric car or other forms [of transportation], this really is the biggest thing that an individual can do.

And the other thing is what you eat. Eating plant-based makes a big difference because a lot of our emissions come from agriculture and … producing meat and dairy. And so if you can move away from that, it doesn't have to be entirely, but move your diet towards plant-based, then your impact on the environment is a lot less.

Making these choices as consumers really sends a strong signal to governments, strong signals to decision makers, to really make a big change.

What do you say, though, to those who will still be skeptical of even the hardest facts in your report, who don't want to change?

There will always be people [who are] skeptical. Of course, change is difficult. But policymakers have no excuses. Policymakers have advisors within the government. They have the scientific evidence. They now have this UN report.

And really, the policy that directs investments and decision making at the country level has to be based on the best available evidence. And there is nothing better than this report as the best available evidence.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Sarah Cooper. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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