You’ve probably forgotten about the most recent climate change report because it came out in Olden Times, about three weeks ago. To refresh your memory, it carried the captivating title Synthesis Report of the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. From what I could tell, the “About” section is even more boring than the name, but I fell asleep halfway through reading it, so it might pick up toward the end. I recall something about “the assessment report of its three working groups, three special reports, a refinement to the methodology… zzzzzzzzzz…”
Anyway, as a document, it does not fall short of its predecessors, in either the tone of dire urgency or the pleas for the world to pay attention for Pete’s sake and DO something, already. What I know about IPCC reports is: they seem to come out roughly every other day; they are written by scientists and bureaucrats, and probably scientific bureaucrats; and the message of each one is “EARTH PEOPLE: PLEASE CARE THAT THE PLANET IS BURNING AND LIFE AS WE KNOW CAN NEVER BE THE SAME.” Alas, comedic exaggeration falls flat, because the actual conclusions in the actual IPCC reports are truly dramatic, and yet astoundingly un-hyperbolic.
There is a helpful section called “Headline Statements,” designed for people seeking maximal panic with minimal scrolling, and for news reporters who’ve been given 30 seconds to explain meteorological catastrophe to a semi-attentive audience waiting to board an airplane.
Skimming bullet points therein, one learns that “Human activities, principally through emissions of greenhouse gases, have unequivocally caused global warming,” a sentence both incredibly dull and frighteningly clear. That word unequivocally shows up so casually in the third clause, hitting you right between the eyes while you’re still groggy from the soothing non-specificity of what came before.
Moving on, “Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.” I don’t know what a cryosphere is. I think Walt Disney might live there? But wow, the confidence this statement throws down! Widespread. Rapid. Have occurred. As the kids say, we’ve um… fudged around with fossil fuels, and now we’re finding out.
Confidence ratings, italicized and parenthetical, follow every assertion like a Greek chorus for scientist-slash-bureaucrats, the Oceanids of sea level rise, perhaps. “Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health (very high confidence).” “There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all (very high confidence).” “Ocean acidification (virtually certain), ocean deoxygenation (high confidence) and global mean sea level (virtually certain) will continue to increase in the 21st century, at rates dependent on future emissions.”
There’s an awful lot of certainty and confidence around some seriously high-stakes facts throughout this report. Having attended elementary school before the invention of STEM, I can’t claim to understand the technical details of causal linkages between things like emissions, acidification, deoxygenation, and climate change. Not being a magician, I can’t transform the global economy with a snap of my fingers in order to “achieve deep and sustained emissions reductions and secure a liveable and sustainable future for all” (high confidence).
What I can tell you, though, is that having grown up in, on, and beside the Chester River, it’s plain to see the changes to the water, the land, the flora, and the fauna so abstrusely described by the scientist-slash-bureaucrats. Listen my children, and you shall hear of a time not so very long ago when the river did not encroach upon the land. It’s hard to believe, but High Street in Chestertown did not get its name because high tides regularly covered it. There used to be beaches on the shores of the river. One-hundred year floods only came around once a century or so. Raising houses, docks, and parking lots lest they need to be abandoned is not a time-honored Eastern Shore tradition. Don’t get me wrong, summer has always been hot, but there’s hot and then there’s what we have now. Now we have HOT hot.
Sober, buttoned down people and institutions like the IPCC have been dialing up the dramatic language about the severity, urgency, and imminence of climate change for a long time, and people really do understand it better than they did even a few years ago. Maybe all these reports have made a difference. Or maybe it’s because it’s gotten so much more visible, so rapidly. It’s especially hard to avoid for those of us living in a place where the line between the water and the land has become more of a suggestion than a border, and where a bigger proportion of the economy is devoted to adaptation, mitigation, and emergency response every year.
I have a semi-obsessive habit of photographing the high tides as they shove the river into places where it really doesn’t belong A few years ago, I would traipse someplace like the foot of High Street or the Centreville Wharf for this purpose, and almost always be alone. If anyone else was around, they simply launched their boat or took their walk, apparently oblivious to the really big, ah… puddle in their way. Last week, however, I felt almost superfluous among the swarm of people documenting the waves washing inexorably over the deck. This is progress.
Yet every time the IPCC drops a new truth bomb, it scarcely seems to make a splash. No wonder those poor scientists-slash-bureaucrats keep pushing the drama-meter higher. They must feel like they’re screaming into the abyss. It’s another iteration of the polycrisis I’ve written about in the past, but how can regular people possibly be expected to cope with climate change information? The systems are so complex and the changes needed are on such a massive scale, with so much global power and money at stake. We’re just trying to get through the day over here, and “Increased international cooperation including improved access to adequate financial resources, particularly for vulnerable regions, sectors and groups, and inclusive governance and coordinated policies” keeps slipping down the to-do list, below laundry, keeping track of grocery prices, staying updated on covid vaccines, and remembering when the new season of Ted Lasso comes out.
At moments like these I like to turn to smart organizations and wise friends for real talk, no sugar-coating, perspective, and good advice, so I asked Darran White Tilghman, Director of Community Engagement at ShoreRivers for help. Unlike me, the folks at ShoreRivers do understand science. They can sort out what individuals need to know and point us toward what we can do.
Darran’s message helped rouse me from my jargon-induced slumber. She says:
“There is plenty of cause for grief and anger in the latest IPCC report, but it is so important not to give in to despondency and doom. The future isn’t written yet; we are writing it every day. Let’s make the story we write one of stubborn hope and joy. Put that hope into action by planting a native tree or River-Friendly Yard, by insisting that all sectors embrace the climate solutions that already exist, by sharing your love of our waterways and lands with a young person. There is still time to act, and if we act together we will create a shared future we want to inhabit.”
I believe in the truth of this message (very high confidence), and so does the IPCC. Even while dialing up the urgency, the scientists-slash-bureaucrats insist that “multiple, feasible and effective options are available,” and not just that, but that the solutions that will reduce emissions and slow global warming come with side benefits of reducing hunger, reducing poverty, and improving global health and overall societal well-being. Each of us has options for action, and if we come together even in small bands of neighbors or colleagues or friends, we have even more options. Let’s write that future—I’ll see you at the water’s blurry edge.
Maria Wood traveled throughout the country as production and tour manager for award-winning musician David Grover, with whom she co-founded a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing education and fostering positive social change through music and music-making. She returned to school mid-career, earning a BA in American Studies and a Certificate in Ethnomusicology from Smith College. More recently, she has written and taught on the meaning and impact of the musical Hamilton, served as Deputy Campaign Manager for congressional candidate Jesse Colvin and was Executive Director of Chestertown RiverArts. She lives in a multigenerational human/feline household in Chestertown.