THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. (Virtual)
MODERATOR: Good morning, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center briefing: Climate Crisis: The Latest Science and U.S. Objectives for COP 26. Our briefers today are Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Deputy Director for Climate and Environment for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Jonathan Pershing, Deputy Special Envoy for Climate, U.S. Department of State; and Ko Barrett, Vice Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Senior Advisor for Climate for NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research.
And now for the ground rules. This briefing is on the record. We will post a video and transcript of this briefing later today on our website. Our briefers will make opening remarks and then we’ll go to Q&A. And we’ll start with NOAA’s Senior Advisor for Climate Ko Barrett, who will discuss the findings of the recent IPCC report. Ko, over to you.
MS BARRETT: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I am happy to provide kind of a brief overview of the report that the IPCC released today. But first I want to just mention that because of the pandemic, these meetings moved online, and we had to invent an entirely new way of working which resulted in this unprecedented online approval process over the last two weeks. And frankly, people said we couldn’t do it, but we did. And not only did we do it, we had record participation among governments, allowing us to welcome many more developing country delegates into the conversation and to increase the diversity of perspectives that are so critical for our work. And importantly, we didn’t have to delay this work, setting an example for other international organizations.
So, diving into the report: Since the last assessment report in 2013, there have been major advances in climate science worldwide. During these years, climate scientists filled in gaps in observations of past climate. They improved climate models and developed new ways to combine many types of evidence. As a result, today we have the clearest picture of how the Earth’s climate functions and how human activities affect it. We know better than ever how the climate has changed in the past, how it is changing now, and how it will change in the future.
I mean, of course, for decades we’ve known that the world is warming. But the recent changes we’ve seen in the climate are now widespread, rapid, and intensifying. And some of the changes we see today are unprecedented in thousands of years, or even never ever seen before.
So the recent rate of warming is unprecedented in at least 2,000 years. To measure how the climate is changing, we looked at a key indicator: the average temperature of the Earth’s surface over a period of at least a decade compared to the average in the late 1800s, pre-industrial times. And so if we look at the last ten years, the average surface temperature was 1.1 degrees Celsius higher than in pre-industrial times. In fact, each of the last four decades has successively been the warmest since the late 1800s.
But temperature is not the only aspect that is being altered. Levels of heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere continue to increase fast. Current CO2 concentrations are the highest they’ve been for at least 2 million years. Over the last 100 years, sea level rise has risen at faster rates than it ever did in at least 3,000 years. Summer Arctic sea ice area is at its lowest level in at least a thousand years, and the retreat of glaciers on a global scale since 1950 is unprecedented in at least 2,000 years. This warming that we’ve already experienced has far-reaching consequences. Climate change is contributing to increases in extreme heat, heavy rainfall events, and drought, all of which we are seeing across the globe this year.
There will be further warming in the coming decades. And what’s clear from this report is that unless there are immediate, strong, rapid, and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees will be beyond reach. The report shows that in the next 20 years, global warming is expected to reach or exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius above the late 1800s. However, if we rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, if we can reach global net-zero CO2 emissions around 2050, it is extremely likely that we can keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius and maybe even start to see temperatures start to decline in my lifetime.
But if global greenhouse gas emissions continue around today’s level for the coming decades, we would reach 2 degrees C of global warming by the middle of this century. The differences here are vast.
So also what’s new in this report is that we now have a much more advanced understanding of the connections between the emissions we release, the rise in global surface temperature, and the changes to weather and climate we are seeing around the world. It’s unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land. All of the observed warming of the last decade from – as compared to the late 1800s is human-caused.
Another major advance in our understanding is how emissions lead to specific changes in the climate, including extreme events. We know today that human influence is already making extreme climate events – including heat waves, heavy rainfall, and droughts – more frequent and severe. Recent advances in our understanding of how human activities are affecting the climate mean that today we can better estimate the changes we may experience from different amounts of emissions, different levels of warming, and across different regions.
So climate change is already affecting every region on Earth in multiple ways. But climate change manifests differently depending on where in the world you are, and there are different combinations of changes in every corner of the world.
In this report, we added more new information that’s useful on a regional scale. This is an area of climate science that has rapidly advanced in the last 10 years. To reflect this and provide more information helpful to inform decisions related to risk management and adaptation, around a third of this report is dedicated to regional climate information.
And we launched an interactive climate atlas that makes our global and regional climate information available to all. It includes observations of ongoing changes, projection of future changes. And you can use the interactive atlas to find out what climate change means for where you live.
Many of the changes set in motion by climate change are slow processes. These long-lasting changes for the most part affect the planet’s frozen regions, the cryosphere, and the ocean. And changes in sea level rise, ice sheets, deep ocean temperature, and acidification will continue for thousands of years, meaning they are virtually irreversible in our lifetimes and will continue over generations to come.
But the good news is that these irreversible changes can be slowed down with rapid, strong, and sustained reductions in emissions. And other changes can be stopped if greenhouse gas emissions are deeply reduced. For example, retreating glaciers in Arctic sea ice, which contribute to sea level rise, will continue to decline for at least several decades, but these changes could be stopped or slowed if emissions are sharply reduced.
Our planet is warming, and it is warming quickly, with increasing consequences everywhere. Yet this report is clear that it’s possible to limit future warming within a few decades. The climate we experience in the future depends on our decisions now.
Thanks. With that, I’ll turn it back.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. And we will now turn to Dr. Jane Lubchenco, deputy director for climate for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
MS LUBCHENCO: Thank you, Jen. Hello, everyone. Thank you for joining us. I echo Ko’s heartfelt thanks to the IPCC secretariat, authors, co-chairs, and so many others who were involved in the development and communication of this important report. Many long hours and late nights over the past several years were spent on video meetings with colleagues around the world during the COVID pandemic. The strength of this report is a testament to their hard work under challenging circumstances.
Now, I’d like to focus on three topics today: One, the significance of this report for decision making; two, the impressive advances in science that enabled the report; and three, the importance of science to this administration.
So why is this report a big deal? A wise person once told me we need science to save ourselves from fantasy. The IPCC reports do exactly that. They convey the state of climate change science in plain language so that global policymakers can ground their actions in knowledge. The power of the findings is that they reflect the consensus of the entire global scientific community – not any single individual scientist, study, or country, but hundreds of scientists from around the world. Their task was immense. The report released today provides us with a sobering synopsis of scientific knowledge about the past, present, and future changes to our planet from climate change.
The report portrays a rapidly changing planet characterized by interrelated changes, many of which are already wreaking havoc with people’s lives. It articulates in unambiguous language that this change is due to human activities. In an unprecedented amount of time, human influence has transformed our climate system, across the atmosphere, the ocean and freshwater systems, the frozen parts of our planet, the land surface, and the biosphere.
As the strongest IPCC ever, it leaves no room for doubt about the cause of these changes, the warming that is well underway, nor the fact that the climate change – that climate change is already affecting extreme events in every part of the planet – extreme events such as heat waves, heavy rainfall, fire weather, and droughts, as well as events that we don’t see but that have equally devastating impacts, such as heat waves in the ocean. To me, the report reinforces the existential nature of the climate crisis, and it radiates a deep sense of urgency for immediate and decisive action.
Thanks to the report, we now know that the pathway for keeping the 1.5-degree target within reach is narrowing, which is why action this decade is so critical. We now know that every action counts, every year matters, every avoided fraction of a degree will help. We now know that to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C, we need to reach global net-zero by mid-century, and that means immediate, decisive, collective global action.
My second point: The science that underpins the report’s findings has advanced dramatically over the last eight years. The modeling is more sophisticated, global observations more numerous, and the result is that the report can provide more useful information to decision makers.
Here are a few examples. One, scientific advances in the science of attribution have enabled scientists to state the degree to which climate change has influenced or caused specific extreme weather events. These advances led directly to the conclusion that many of the trends in the frequency and severity of extreme events are due to human influence. Two, improved models and more observations have enabled more realistic scenarios and vastly improved estimates of sea level rise under different levels of warming. It is now possible to include a focus on regional patterns – number three – for example, Southeast Asia, helping to illustrate how global trends may look or feel different depending on where you are in the world. The IPCC report is accompanied by an interactive atlas that should prove very useful. And finally, number four, we have vastly improved understanding of the impacts of climate change on the ocean. As a result of climate change, the ocean is warmer, rising, more acidic, with less oxygen, and is less predictable.
These changes affect the entire planet as well as life in the ocean and the fisheries and other benefits that we depend upon. These and many other advances underscore the importance of continuing to invest in scientific advances, enhanced computing power, and observational understanding of the world around us. Only by understanding how our planet is changing can we develop the necessary solutions.
And to my third and final key point, this is an administration that not only stands behind science, but views science as a critical part of the solution. The science is clear: Climate change is having a major impact on our world, and those impacts will increase in the future. The Biden-Harris administration is committed to ensuring that science is at the table to inform our actions, and we are committed to continuing to be a world leader in understanding and responding to the climate crisis. Many U.S. models and observations from sea to space went into forming today’s report, but the need for additional scientific information continues to grow. This administration is committed to leading with science and to making investments in the science needed to better understand the Earth system and its changes, as well as to help people prepare for and respond to current and future impacts.
At the same time, we are also aggressively scaling up the solutions: energy technologies needed to transition the U.S. to a low-carbon future; conservation and restoration of our natural carbon sinks, our lands and waters; and innovations that will help build our resilience. And we are ensuring that Americans and citizens around the world have access to actionable and science-based information to help them plan and respond to the climate crisis.
In conclusion, the IPCC report underscores the urgency of global climate action. We look forward to working hand in hand with our partners around the world to tackle this crisis together. The time for action is now. Back to you, Jen.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Dr. Lubchenco, and we’ll now go to Deputy Special Envoy for Climate for the U.S. Department of State Jonathan Pershing.
MR PERSHING: Thanks very much, Jen, and thank you both to Jane and to Ko. It’s really a pleasure to have a chance to be here, although it’s a rather grim moment as we look at the latest science that we are seeing.
I wanted to come to several points in my brief comments here before we turn to questions. The first one is a little bit about the history of the intersection between the science and the policy. The IPCC has been driving climate policy since its inception. In fact, one of the first things that was done under the IPCC rubric was a recommendation by the community to establish a negotiating process. That happened in the late 1980s. That was then followed by a series of sequential reports, each of which took greater certainty, more precision, and outlined with greater level of confidence the kinds of changes the world was seeing.
At each successive report, at the release of each successive report, the global community took additional action. Early on in the process, the reports led to the creation of the UN Convention on Climate Change. That was the effect of the first report, that convention in 1992. Later, with the second and third reports, we had the Kyoto Protocol agreed in 1995, adopted in 1997.
We then came to Paris, and with the additional information and reports, we had commitments by nations of what they had to do. And I want to just quote the language from that Paris Agreement: “We call upon ourselves collectively to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below two degrees above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees.”
We now have the sixth assessment, and we are coming from here into a new round of negotiations. They will take place in Glasgow in November of this year. If we follow the course we’ve set, we will listen to the science. We will take additional action.
This report is not coming out of the blue. The scientific community has been developing its understanding of our systems and how they change since the last report was done. And so governments have had a chance to prepare. And one of the most recent statements that have come from the major economies, the world’s largest emitting countries, came at the G20 meeting, the meeting of the climate and energy ministers that was held in Italy. And they said, “We recall our collective commitment to hold the global average temperature increase well below two degrees and pursue efforts to 1.5.” That is the basis for what we are going into Glasgow with, and this report underscores the urgency of that solution.
It also makes clear that it is insufficient in terms of what we do to wait until 2050 to act, that the actions have to be taken this decade. The report gives us some clarity about what it means, what kinds of reductions, what depth of effort is required, and how comprehensive that effort must be. It makes explicit that this is a decade that is critical, that we have to reduce emissions on the order of 40 to 50 percent over the course of the next decade, and get to about zero by mid-century. That is a guidepost. Those are a set of timelines. Those are specifics that we now can carry with us into Glasgow.
That therefore also gives us some sense of what we at the State Department and in a negotiating team led by John Kerry are trying to do, and we are working with countries around the world to deliver those changes. We are seeing progress. The United States itself has made the commitment under President Biden. We rejoined the Paris Agreement and we announced our own intent to get to 50 to 52 percent reduction by 2030.
We are seeing others with an even more ambitious level of aggressive commitments. The UK hosting the COP at 68 percent reduction. Collectively, the Europeans at a 55 percent reduction. But others are not moving yet far enough and the task before all of us in the next months is to get those countries on side. And one of the things that Ko mentioned in her comments at the front I think is central: This report for the first time brought together scientists from around the world in unprecedented numbers. No country can say it doesn’t know what’s happening because they had scientists at the table providing guidance.
The second comment that I want to make, though, is that we are not going to avoid damage. We are going to see an increase and we are already seeing the consequences of climate change. That occurs in wildfires not only in the American West, but across Greece and across the Russian taiga. That occurs not only in flooding in the United States, but all the way through Europe. That occurs through typhoons that are more intense in Asia and a change in the monsoon pattern in India and flooding in Latin and Central America. These are changes with a temperature increase of just a hair over a degree, about 1.1 or so. When we see 1.5 or 2, we know those damages will be more significant. The IPCC catalogs them and talks about them particularly.
So we need, in the context of the negotiations, also to see an increase in adaptive capacity. We need countries to step up and look at how they will manage the changes that are unavoidable and try to avoid all of those future changes that will be unmanageable. That balance is critical.
COP 26 is thus a turning point. This is a moment in time where we have the latest science. It’s been given to us with an extraordinary and heroic effort by scientists around the world. It gives us a clear path to what we have to do. It describes deep reductions across all greenhouse gases. It describes obligations that have to be taken collectively, and Paris is a moment to get to those. And we have in the Glasgow meeting an opportunity to bring countries together, a strong lead on behalf of the UK to drive that outcome, and I think a collective will as evidenced by the major economies in the G20 to move to that outcome.
Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We will now begin the Q&A for today’s briefing. As a reminder, you can raise your hand virtually using the raise hand function or submit your question in the chat field to be read by myself, the moderator. We will – journalists are allowed to pose their questions to any three of our briefers today.
I see our first question is from Ricardo Leopoldo from Agencia Estado Brazil. Ricardo, please unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Yes, good morning.
MODERATOR: Good morning. We can hear you.
QUESTION: Yeah, okay. Just to check – yeah, thank you. I’d like to check – all of the authorities, they stress the importance of the report and – but right now, a lot of analysts worldwide, they are concerned about what’s supposed to be the U.S. Government decisions, especially regarding the COP 26. So how can – the U.S. Government will advance this agenda, including the – all the points that President Biden stressed during the conference in the White House and NATO to achieve those goals that, our view, was stressed very well? Thank you so much.
MR PERSHING: Maybe I’ll start with a response to that and others might want to chime in. Thank you for that question. There are two different parts to that – to the response. The first is: What is the United States doing at home? The second is: How is the United States contributing to a global effort and supporting others overseas and internationally to make the changes that are required?
On the domestic side, President Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement the very first day he came into office. He announced his intent with a new commitment at a leaders’ summit that he held on Earth Day on the 22nd of April to reduce emissions 50 to 52 percent by 2030 and to get to net zero by 2050. So that’s the goal. We have made it explicit. It is aligned with the science.
The second, of course, is what do you do about implementation, and a series of new actions have been taken since the administration began. We have moved aggressively on automobiles. That’s a set of standards that were announced last week, and you can see the direction of travel in a – really a strong effort to improve efficiencies but also to begin to develop zero-carbon fleets which can move for electricity.
We have invested substantially in actions on new greenhouse gas regulations. We are looking aggressively at programs in the agricultural sector that can manage soil carbon and that can look at questions around forests and land management.
We are considering a whole raft of technology solutions that will be required to get to net zero in energy and in industry.
We are looking now at a budget program that is going currently in Congress and trying to support activities that would lead to a green infrastructure. All of those are concrete and specific tasks. They will lead to the trajectory, according to our current analysis, that will keep us on the President’s path to get to a 50-plus percent reduction.
The second part is global. How can we get other countries for the same kinds of directional signals? How can we get them to move? How and why would they choose to move? The first is that it’s an economic imperative. The cost of inaction is remarkably high, and the cost of acting is increasingly less and less expensive. We are seeing globally now that installing zero-carbon sources of energy like renewable power are less costly in many cases than even keeping existing fossil fuel fleets.
We are seeing opportunities for electric vehicles globally. Virtually every car manufacturer is now making one. We have companies moving, like ArcelorMittal, to zero-carbon steel and companies like Holcim moving to zero-carbon cement. These are commercially viable opportunities, but we need to drive them more quickly and that calls for policy. And part of the agenda that we’ve mounted is to try to move that.
And finally, we’re working on the adaptation agenda. We’ve tripled the amount of resources that we devote – not over what the Trump administration did, but over what we were providing at the end of the Obama administration for adaptation. We see this as a crucial component of next steps. We are working globally with the World Bank, with multilateral development banks, with development assistance agencies around the world to try to increase their capacity to help countries adapt to the consequences of climate change.
It’s not yet done. The task is not finished. We have several months until Glasgow. And then let’s be clear, we have an implementation path that goes beyond that, but we are putting aggressive efforts in motion to meet these commitments. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. There was also a hand-raised button. Bryant Harris, The National. Bryant, do you have a question?
QUESTION: Apologies. Thank you. I lowered my hand because Jonathan had already answered the question, so thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Bryant. If there are no other questions – I don’t see any in the chat field or hands raised – then we will conclude our briefing today, and we have come to the end of our time.
On behalf of the U.S. Department of State and Washington Foreign Press Center, I’d like to thank all of our briefers today for this critical briefing on this timely issue.
Well, I see one final question raised. Arnaud Leparmentier, Le Monde? No?
Arnaud, we’ll go to you as the final question. Arnaud, do we have you?
QUESTION: Hello. Do you listen to me?
MODERATOR: We can hear you. Go ahead with your question.
QUESTION: Okay. Yeah, sorry. Thank you very much. Well, I just wanted to have a reassessment of the U.S. department position about carbon tax, carbon frontier tax. The European are pushing for a carbon tax. What is the position of the U.S. administration? Are you for or against a carbon tax as the frontier for imports and exports? Thank you very much.
MR PERSHING: So let me again take that as a first cut. Thank you so much for that question. The answer is that we are actively looking into it. There’s not been a decision taken at this point in time. You may have seen that Senator Coons, who is one of the senators in the U.S. Senate, has made a proposal for such a tax, such a border adjustment.
There are some differences in the way the United States would apply such a program and the way the Europeans, who are moving forward with that agenda, could apply it. The Europeans have a domestic carbon tax on a cap-and-trade program. The United States does not have that kind of policy. There are more difficulties in making the assessment about comparability across countries. Nonetheless, we are looking at what the options are. We don’t yet have a decision as to whether we would or would not move forward with such a policy. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Okay. So with that, we will come to the end of our briefing. Thank you, again, to all of our briefers, and good afternoon to everyone.
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