The latest climate science is warning us – it’s time to listen

IPCC Global Synthesis Report 2023
Also available in Spanish and French

After marathon negotiating sessions that ran two full days overtime, the Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was finally adopted on Sunday, 19 March 2023. Over 650 government representatives from 135 countries, along with 121 observer organizations, gathered in Interlaken, Switzerland, to participate in the deliberations. I had the opportunity to attend as the observer for UNDP. 

Before I share the major takeaways from the report, here are a few things to know about the report itself and the approval process:

  • The key messages in this synthesis report reflect THE most comprehensive and up-to-date scientific knowledge on climate change. The report marks the culmination of the IPCC’s sixth assessment cycle – an eight-year undertaking that saw nearly 800 scientists from around the world volunteer to analyse and synthesise global research that was presented in six underlying technical reports. That means that the IPCC synthesis report coming out is a big deal. When we know what the latest science says, policy makers can make more informed decisions on how to move forward. 
  • All IPCC reports are reviewed and painstakingly approved line by line by governments – which means that every country in the world is in agreement with the findings. The approval process for the synthesis report was lengthy because of differing views over what to highlight from the nearly 8,000 pages of underlying science in a Summary for Policy Makers. For example, vulnerable countries wanted to emphasise losses and damages from climate change, and developing countries overall fought to recognize the role of historical greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the need for equity in the context of development. These discussions are often difficult and finding a compromise takes time. 
  • The findings of the synthesis report are grim, but they also offer us a roadmap for the future. Indeed, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres described the synthesis report as a “how-to guide to defuse the climate time-bomb” and a “survival guide for humanity”. Science has advanced quite a bit since the IPCC’s fifth assessment cycle. We now have more robust data on how the climate is changing, and also more information on solutions – feasible and effective options that are available right now.

With those key facts about the process out of the way, here are six major takeaways from the IPCC report.

  1. The rate of temperature rise in the last half century is the highest in 2,000 years. Concentrations of carbon dioxide are at their highest in at least 2 million years. From devastating droughts, floods, and heatwaves, we can see the evidence of climate change in every corner of the globe. We KNOW that these increasingly frequent disasters are a result of climate change caused by human activity.
  2. More than a century of burning fossil fuels, alongside unequal and unsustainable energy and land use, have already led to global warming of 1.1°C. The synthesis report makes it clear that the pace and scale of climate change efforts to date, and current climate plans and policies, are woefully insufficient. To keep the 1.5°C goal alive, we need global GHG emissions to “peak” before 2025, followed by deep, sustained, and, in most cases, immediate reductions. We need GHG emissions to be cut by almost half from 2019 levels by 2030 and to reach net-zero by mid-century. 
  3. Every increment of a degree of warming matters: Global warming is already causing increasingly dangerous impacts on nature and people in every part of the world. Every increment of warming results in rapidly escalating hazards and risks, such as more intense heatwaves, heavier rainfall, and other weather extremes, increased risks for human health and biodiversity, and climate-driven food and water insecurity – all of which could roll back decades of sustainable development gains. 
  4. The impacts of climate change are deeply unjust: Those who have contributed least to the problem are being disproportionately affected. Almost half of the world’s population lives in regions that are highly vulnerable to climate change. In the last decade, deaths from floods, droughts, and storms in these highly vulnerable regions were 15 times higher than in less-vulnerable parts of the world.
  5. Procrastination is deadly: The report shows us that it’s more beneficial if we do the hard work now to move away from fossil fuels and GHG-emitting practices than to try and act later. It’s also cheaper in the long run. That’s because many ecosystems are reaching their limits of being able to adapt — which means, not all species and nature can cope with the changes. In fact, the report confirms that some climate impacts are already so severe they cannot be adapted to, and are leading to losses and damages. 
  6. We have to keep sight of the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement: We can already feel and see the effects of 1.1°C and in 2018, the IPCC highlighted the devastating impacts once we pass this 1.5°C threshold in a groundbreaking special report. Yet, five years later, global GHG emissions continue to rise and the planet is getting hotter. Do we really want to take this gamble with the only planet we have?

People tend to think of IPCC reports as grim, and the sad truth is that they are. A child born today will live in a world significantly hotter than that of their grandparents and is also likely to experience three or four times as many extreme climate events in their lifetime. 

But we can’t allow fear and anxiety to lead to inaction. As UNDP’s Climate Promise, we’re proud to be supporting more than 120 countries and territories to define and implement their national climate targets under the Paris Agreement, and we are seeing progress on the ground. 

The choices made in the next few years will play a crucial role in deciding the state of the planet for future generations. As I think back to the synthesis report negotiations, the voice of the delegate from Jamaica continues to reverberate in my mind: “It is our lives that we are here fighting for!”

Editor's Note: If you found this blog useful, check out our quick video explainer on the IPCC report.