30 Percent Solution, Forest-to-Cities Climate Challenge

What the New IPCC Report Means for New England

Aug. 10, 2021
New England Forestry Foundation

Climate change has jumped to the front page in dramatic fashion this summer. Wildfire wiped out entire towns in British Columbia and California, and generated massive fire tornadoes just a year after the National Weather Service’s first-ever fire tornado warning. Meanwhile, floods decimated Germany, the Netherlands, China, and parts of Africa. Canada set its all-time heat record at over 121 degrees, while California’s Death Valley tied its own previous global record at 130 degrees. Normally temperate Northwestern cities like Portland and Seattle suffered through triple-digit heat, while residents of Phoenix suffered through a record-breaking four consecutive days of temperatures above 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, today, climate change is back on the front page with the release of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC.

The Nobel-prize winning IPCC brings together hundreds of scientists to come to a common and authoritative presentation of the facts around climate change, the wording of which then must be approved by governments participating in the process. As such, the document released early Monday morning is a conservative statement of agreed-upon climate science; fully 195 countries endorsed the document. The document doesn’t represent the most devastating of climate predictions—it represents what scientists are confident about, collectively.

Those confident predictions are stark, as is the language from global leaders in presenting the report. For example, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called it “code red for humanity,” going on to say, “The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse‑gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk.”

The report includes at least three significant changes from past reports of the IPCC:

  1. It highlights that climate change is proceeding more rapidly than expected, with the likelihood that we will cross the critical threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by as soon as 2030 (versus the 1.1 degree increase we have already experienced and that is causing the extremes described above).
  2. It highlights that some of the changes from climate change will be irreversible in any time frame that matters to human civilization. For example, if the Greenland or Antarctic ice caps melt, they are unlikely to return; they are the residuals of tens of thousands of years of snow falling in a climate cold enough that not all that snow melts away each summer. If the ice caps disappear, even restoration of the conditions that led to their creation would then requires tens of thousands of years of snowfall to rebuild them. As a result, the sea level rise that would be triggered by their melting is also effectively irreversible.
  3. It notes that there is already enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to fossil fuel burning that warming is likely to proceed for decades; actions we take to reduce emissions now may prevent disastrous economic impacts and human suffering in the second half of this century and then on for millennia, but for the next 20 years, the control panel is already set to “devastation.”

So, what does this mean here in New England? First, New England is one of the “lucky” landscapes in terms of the particular combination of impacts that we’re likely to see. While our average temperatures and temperature extremes are both on their way up, so too is our precipitation. This means we are unlikely to experience as much drought and wildfire as many other parts of the globe. We will see more floods, including coastal flooding as sea level rises, and we will see a loss of frozen ground—about 33 days less by 2040 according to a new IPCC tool for looking at future climate extremes. That is bad news for skiers, snowmobilers, and pond hockey fans, as well as bad news for approaches to harvesting trees that rely on frozen soil for easy access and snow cover to cushion the falling boles. But overall, New England will not see the crushing heat that will haunt the Southeast or the fires and drought that will become the scourge of the far West.

New England will also remain a forested landscape, although the dominant trees in the region’s forests may shift toward more southern species. As forests in many other parts of the world face increasing threats from fire, drought, and other climate impacts, our forests may become even more important as a tool for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and as a source of renewable raw materials—specifically wood!

In this context, the climate benefits of New England Forestry Foundation’s Exemplary Forestry approach loom ever more critical (see our summer 2021 newsletter for even more details!). Exemplary Forestry aims to explicitly help forests to store more carbon, grow more and better wood, and provide habitat for a full suite of regional wildlife. The IPCC’s new report makes it clear that society will need these services from New England’s forests. NEFF is here to help make sure the forest can provide.