IPCC lead author Paulina Aldunce: “What is everyone waiting for?”

By Charlotte Owen-Burge, Editorial Lead, Climate Champions | March 17, 2023

This week, the IPCC, the leading international body for the assessment of climate change, opened its 58th session to complete the last elements of its Sixth Assessment Report: the Synthesis Report and its Summary for Policymakers. The IPCC reports are the scientific roadmap for how leaders tackle the climate crisis in this decade of action. They assess the risks of human-induced climate change, potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation.

The Synthesis Report is the IPCC’s final instalment. It integrates and summarises the findings of the Six Assessment Reports (AR6) released by the IPCC during the current cycle, which began in 2015 in the wake of the Paris Agreement.

IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee, which opened the session, confirmed that “once approved, the Synthesis Report will become a fundamental policy document for shaping climate action in the remainder of this pivotal decade. For policymakers of today and tomorrow, a much-needed textbook for addressing climate change. Inaction and delays are not listed as options.”

Paulina Aldunce is the lead author of the IPCC’s Working Group II and one of the thousands of scientists worldwide to contribute to the work of the IPCC voluntarily. Outside of her work for the IPCC, she is an Associate Researcher at the Center of Risk and Disaster Reduction (CITRID), University of Chile, an Associate Researcher at the Center for Climate and Resilience Research (CR)2, and the Technical Lead of Race to Resilience. Here she recaps the IPCC’s findings, the scale of the challenge and the need to ramp up urgency before we shoot past 1.5C.

Several key messages emerged from the Sixth Assessment, which reinforce each other. So far, the reports have clarified that climate change is a real threat to society and nature and is the direct result of human activities.

One of the key messages is that global emissions must peak by 2025 to limit warming to 1.5C above preindustrial temperatures. One year has gone by since that warning was issued, and it doesn’t feel like too much has changed. We know now that we will reach 1.5C in the next two decades and start heading towards 2C. We will see a very different world emerge in the next two decades.

Knowing we will sail past 1.5C, we must focus on bringing temperatures back towards 1.5C. Because if we don’t act now with urgency, speed and scale to accelerate mitigation, we will lose the possibility of coming back to 1.5C or below.

To do this effectively, we need to focus on several things. Firstly, equity. To be successful with adaptation and mitigation, we must focus on the most vulnerable. This means we need to ensure equal participation of those suffering the impacts of climate change when designing and implementing these solutions.

We also need to pour efforts into raising finance and building resilient cities. And at the centre of all of this is the protection of nature. Nature-based Solutions are critical to bringing temperatures down. A healthy ecosystem can give us services for adaptation and mitigation. But if an ecosystem is sick, it cannot – so it’s a two-way relationship. The window of opportunity is closing fast. If nature is not urgently restored and protected, it will not be able to give us the services which permit us to live in a net zero and resilient world.

Sadly, the evidence scientists provide, and the urgency we communicate, isn’t always reflected in decision-making. And this is intensely frustrating. What is everyone waiting for? But something must have sunk in because the reality is that the situation would be much worse without the IPCC. When the Paris Agreement was signed, which discussed rises of 1.5C and 2C, the Convention asked the IPCC to write a report to show the world what the planet would look like in those two temperature scenarios. It was written so decision-makers could look at this and see if their decisions aligned with these worlds and ask themselves, ‘is this the world we want?’.

I can go to sleep knowing I did everything possible. I’ve made sacrifices in my personal life to pursue this career. As scientists, we’re doing everything we can, but we’re not the decision-makers. And I don’t believe most decision-makers are making the right decisions at the speed and scale required. There seems to be a mix of responses.

There’s a large group of people who understand the situation, but they don’t care. There’s another group that don’t realise how serious the problem is – or they think technology will come to the rescue. And, in the minority, there are those trying to do whatever they can.

I feel we’ve reached a point in humanity where many people, in certain parts of the world, think they deserve everything. It’s like a pervasive arrogance – ‘we deserve money, technology, and everything we want’. So they buy, buy, buy, have huge green lawns void of nature and use too much water. Modern technology has brought us to a situation where we think everything is unlimited. And the result? We are rapidly reaching the limits, or thresholds, of our climate.

But there are signs of hope. I’m encouraged by climate action being taken in many countries and by thousands of non-state actors. There are policies, regulations and market instruments that are proving effective. But to do what is required, we now need to see these scaled up and applied more widely and equitably.

In my home country, Chile, the Environment Minister, Maisa Rojas, is a leading climate scientist. Under her leadership, Chile has passed a climate change law that binds our country to carbon neutrality by 2050 and gives the environment ministry more power to set emission caps, including for the mining sector.

With the campaign Race to Resilience, we are helping to accelerate adaption. Our message: making 4 billion people more resilient by 2030 underlines the scale of the problem, the challenge, and the urgency that’s required. We are making significant progress!

On Monday, we will be reminded of the stark warnings already issued. State and non-state actors, if they have not already, must take these findings to the heart of their work, using the science to catalyse action that protects people and nature before it’s too late.

We must move forward with determination and focus, with our eyes firmly fixed, not just on the next four years, but on the future.