Mar 22, 2023 - Energy & Environment

The one UN climate report graphic you need to see

Climate change data visualization showing warming to date, future projected warming depending on our choices, and different human generations' levels of warming.

This figure from figure SPM.1 in the United Nations IPCC's AR6 Synthesis Report shows the observed and possible projected global temperature trends and how they would impact different generations. Image: UN IPCC

A new graphic released Monday from the UN climate panel conveys the most important scientific findings about climate change — and breaks new ground.

Why it matters: From the depths of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessments comes a unique global warming data visualization.

  • It illustrates how future warming depends on various emissions scenarios, and shows how climate change already affects — and is poised to alter — the lives of generations born in 1950, 1980, and 2020.
  • It underscores the responsibility people currently have to alter course on greenhouse gas emissions in the decades and centuries ahead.

Zoom in: The IPCC report contains stark findings, including that the world is way off track in limiting the severity of global warming; but there's still time to rein in emissions from fossil fuels, land use change and other sources.

  • For the 1950s group, much of the climate change they have experienced has occurred since the 1970s, when the fingerprints of greenhouse gases became more pronounced.
  • Those born in 1980 have already seen large and rapid shifts in climate, and will be 70-years-old during the middle of the century, which is the timeframe for when nations' emissions are supposed to hit net zero.
  • People born in 2020, however, could see a world that warms dramatically more than it has so far if emissions remain high.

The intrigue: Alex Ruane, a member of the IPCC report’s core writing team and a NASA climate researcher, tells Axios the generational icons show three groups of people, rather than only the oldest and youngest groups.

  • It's meant to depict how climate conversations are taking place today between grandparents, parents and children.
  • “Those conversations really are happening about the current state of the world and the future state of the world that we're leaving for our children and grandchildren,” Ruane said in an interview.

Ruane said the youngest generation faces potentially sweeping shifts in the climate by the end of the century.

  • “I think this figure helps kind of articulate, and it's not just that [the climate is] getting warmer, but if you look at that furthest future generation, the difference between the upper body and the lower body is really the difference in the choices that we're making,” Ruane said.
  • There is “a massive difference” of 2.5°C (4.5°F) between the upper and lower set of temperature projections by the time the younger generation has reached age 70 in 2090, he added.
  • This is more than twice as large of a difference as the entire warming the world has faced to date, which is now about 1.2°C (2.16°F) compared to the preindustrial era.

What they’re saying: “All of this disruption that we've seen in our experience is only half of the disruption that is dependent on our choices," he said.

  • He noted this leaves out the risk that more warming could trigger climate tipping points, bringing even more dramatic shifts.

Between the lines: The visualization picks up inspiration from many sources.

  • One comes from perhaps the most ubiquitous modern global warming depiction, known as the climate stripes. It was popularized by University of Reading climate researcher Ed Hawkins, and originally took inspiration from a knitted blanket Hawkins saw on Twitter.
  • The stripes symbolize each year’s temperature departures from average, and this data visualization has been applied to everything from social media campaigns to fashion, and even a U.K. soccer team’s uniforms.
  • The IPCC depiction also draws from work by IPCC lead author Malte Meinshausen, showing climate stripes since 1750 and projections out to 2100, using the language of “possible futures.”
  • The IPCC's newest innovation is to add generational icons, which have their own climate stripes corresponding to the global surface temperature changes for each year.

Our thought bubble: Now that people can see themselves in a climate projection, they may find the size, speed and scope of the climate challenge a bit unsettling.

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