We examine our past, present and future climates

Before you say anything, I know it’s almost April, actually. But this week has a New Year’s climate feel to me. Not only is this week the Spring Equinox, which is celebrated as the New Year in some cultures (Happy New Year!). We also saw the big UN climate report come down on Monday, which had me in a very thoughtful mood.

The report is from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of scientists that issues reports on the state of climate change research.

The IPCC operates in seven-year cycles, give or take. Each cycle, the team looks at all the published literature on climate change and prepares a few reports on different topics, which summarizes them all and leads to a synthesis report. This week’s release is one of those syndicated reports. One will follow in 2014, and we should see another around 2030.

Because these reports are summaries of existing research, I thought of this as a time to reflect. So for this week’s newsletter, I thought we’d get into the spirit of the new year and look at where we’ve come from, where we’re at, and where climate change is heading.

Climate of the past: 2014

Let’s start with 2014. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were below 400 parts per million. The song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams was slowly driving me crazy. And in November, the IPCC released its fifth synthesis report.

Few are familiar with the 2014 IPCC Synthesis Report. The authors make a clear case that human activity is causing climate change, that adaptation will not slow, and that the world must act to limit greenhouse gas emissions. I see all those lines in this year’s report.

But there are also surprising differences.

First, we were in a different place politically. World leaders have yet to sign the Paris Agreement, which sets a goal of limiting global warming to 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels, and targets 1.5°C (2.7°F). A 2014 assessment report laid the groundwork for that agreement.

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