Why does the IPCC report matter?

Researcher Amy Snover explains what the assessment says about climate change in the Northwest and how communities can prepare.


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sounded its most dire warning yet on Monday, asserting that humans’ relentless dependence on fossil fuels is unequivocally altering all of earth’s systems. The impacts are being felt everywhere, but in the Northwest United States, this summer has offered a frightening preview of a hotter future: An unprecedented heat dome broke temperature records, killing hundreds of people, scorching crops — even baking clams and mussels alive in their shells. Mount Rainier, Washington’s iconic peak, lost almost a third of its snowpack in just one heat event. Hotter, shallower rivers are killing salmon and raising tensions between farmers, fishermen, and tribes. And dozens of wildfires, some large enough to be visible from space, blanketed the continent in smoke before peak fire season even started.

Kids play in the Salmon Springs Fountain on June 27 in Portland, Oregon, during a record-breaking heatwave.
Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Most researchers consider the IPCC’s assessment the most authoritative report on the state of climate science today. Some 200 scientists from 66 countries summarized more than 14,000 individual research papers to create the report — the first section of what’s called the Sixth Assessment Report. This section is focused only on the physical science of climate change  additional sections, focused on impacts and mitigation, will be published next year.

Climate science has improved significantly since the fifth report was published in 2013. This means that the new report contains for the first time more detailed information on things like regional climate change differences, and also provides a greater degree of certainty on, for example, the projected frequency and intensity of future extreme weather events. For scientists who study how climate change will affect specific regions — like Amy Snover, director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington — the weather extremes seen in the Northwest are not surprising. Snover has spent the last two decades working to help governments and communities identify and prepare for climate vulnerability. She recently spoke with HCN about how the newest IPCC report ties into efforts to understand the impacts of climate change and help those on the frontlines in the Northwest. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

High Country News: Why is it important to publish a report that tells us something we’ve known for decades — that humans are causing climate change and that more extreme weather is happening as a result — but adds greater scientific precision and certainty?

Courtesy Amy Snover

Amy Snover: Early reports were very global in nature, about global changes, and each successive report has provided more and more detail about more local changes. I would liken it to, if you see something far away on the horizon, a city, you can see it with your naked eyes. But when you put binoculars up, you can see it even better, and you have more detail and more useful information. When you get closer or use a stronger telescope, you get more and more detail. It’s still a city, but you're learning more and more about it.

It’s much clearer and an increasingly useful picture about the future in terms of understanding some of the impacts that are now unavoidable, what we can do to prepare for them, and the size of the impacts that could happen in the future. And maybe (it will) give us more motivation to avoid them.   

HCN: I’d love to home in on the Northwest, which is where you’ve done a lot of research. What are the biggest climate risks in this region?

AS: There are lots of ways that climate change will affect the Northwest. The big three that have been identified are changes to the water system — more floods and droughts, more water when we don’t need it, and less water when we do need it. That means less snowpack, less or no streamflow, many drier ecosystems. Another big one is impacts on forest ecosystems, (such as) the increased risk of wildfire: More frequent, larger wildfires and everything that comes with that. The third one is the coastal issues: the convergence of sea-level rise, coastal flooding (and) coastal erosion impacts.

(I’ve mentioned) all these different impacts in isolation. But one of the things the report points out is that we’re increasing our risk of having lots of “compounding events” — lots of bad things happening at once. It’s just increasingly urgent to deal with it.  

HCN: How are the risks of climate change unequally distributed in the Northwest, and how much do we know about who is most at risk?

AS: We have a nice summary of this on a report that’s on our website called Unfair Share. It’s about the equity considerations of climate change that point out how people of color, Indigenous peoples and people with lower incomes will likely face greater risks from climate change. … Risks are higher depending on where people live. Coasts and rivers — many places in flood zones are low-income. (The) wildland-urban interface and rural communities, many threatened by wildfires, are (often) low-income.

But I would also say that there hasn't been a ton of research yet in our region of how unevenly distributed (risk) is. There’s lots of information, and there’s lots of “who’s living where,” but not so much a good look at relative levels of vulnerability.

A lot of the tribes have done a lot of work to show how their vulnerability is related to the fact that they are rooted in place. Tribal boundaries, reservation boundaries aren’t going to move when the climate changes, and they aren’t going to move when the fish and wildlife they're used to living with or using as a resource move because of climate change.

Vehicles destroyed by wildfires in Gates, Oregon, on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. In 2020 wildfires burned nearly 5 million acres, killed at least 27 people and forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate up and down the West Coast.
Go Nakamura/Bloomberg via Getty Images

HCN: Do you see any change in the ways that governments are considering the uneven distribution of climate risk?

AS: There is increasing attention to that. Realizing that climate change will not affect everyone the same way — that many folks are more vulnerable to climate impacts because of a combination of where they work, where they live and social determinants of vulnerability. We work with a lot of local governments and state agencies on helping them develop their climate change response plans, and more and more are paying attention to this unequal distribution of impacts

(For example,) King County’s chief executive, Dow Constantine, named climate equity a priority for his government. They have a really detailed report and plan for how to address that. The state of Washington has some tools for looking at environmental health disparities and different vulnerabilities, and policies that require the state government to use that information in some of their policymaking and investments. (Editor’s note: For example, the recently passed Climate Commitment Act requires that at least 35% of revenues raised from limiting CO2 go to projects benefitting communities currently burdened by pollution and other adverse environmental harms, and 10% go to projects formally supported by tribal nations.)

HCN: What are the things we need to still be doing to build a climate future that is both liveable and just?

AS: We need to be drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and (get) on a path toward net zero (emissions) by 2050, which I think our policies are setting us toward. But the actual work to achieve that still needs to be done.

We need to be embedding climate change information into all of our long-range plans and decision-making when we do building, when we build roads, when we invest. And then there’s a lot around community resilience — what communities need to (do to) prepare for these changes, whether there are increased heat events for outdoor workers or increased smoke events. There’s a lot to do.

This will just keep getting worse until we stop it.

We’ve talked about how governments are beginning to respond, or in some cases have been responding for a while, to address those risks. But we haven't talked about the importance of peoples’ voices in calling out these risks and asking their government to be preparing for them.

HCN: What do you hope is the main takeaway for people from the report? Is there anything people can hold onto for the future?

AS: What it boils down to is that we really have and are continuing to change the climate in ways that already matter to people all around the world, including right here in the Northwest.

This will just keep getting worse until we stop it. … The science is really clear that every bit, every part of a degree of additional warming makes the future worse, which means that every part of a degree of warming that we can avert will make the future better. I do this work because the future isn’t written yet. We’re actually writing it every day we live, and I want to be part of making the future better.

Sarah Sax is the climate justice fellow at High Country News currently living in rural Washington. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

Reporting for this story was supported by the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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