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A leaked UN report warns ‘worst is yet to come’ on climate change. Here’s how you can help

A leaked draft report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change paints the starkest picture yet of the accelerating danger caused by human use of coal, oil, and gas. It warns of coming unlivable heat waves, widespread hunger and drought, rising sea levels and extinction. To understand the report's warnings, William Brangham turns to atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayoe.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A leaked draft report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change paints the starkest picture yet of the real and accelerating danger caused by humans' use of coal, oil, and gas.

    William Brangham has the latest.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    This is a draft report, so it may still change. And it was obtained by the AFP, the Agence France-Presse., even so, the report says the threat from climate change is real, it's here, and it's getting worse.

    It lays out a myriad of impacts, unlivable heat waves, widespread hunger and drought, rising sea levels that will force millions from their homes, and the extinction of many species.

    For a U.N. agency, the draft language is blunt, saying — quote — "The worst is yet to come, affecting our children's and grandchildren's lives much more than our own."

    For more on this, we turn to atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe. She's authored over 100 research papers, written many climate reports, and currently teaches at Texas Tech University. She's also the chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy.

    Professor Hayhoe, very good to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    The UNIPCC keeps saying this is a draft, it may change, but I think it's pretty clear to say this language is incredibly stark for the U.N.

    What do you see as the main points to take away from this draft?

  • Katharine Hayhoe, Climate Scientist, Texas Tech University:

    I can't comment specifically on the contents of the draft because it is a confidential document that was provided to governments and experts for review.

    But what I can say is that the results should be no surprise, because we have known since the 1800s that digging up and burning coal then, now gas and oil, are producing heat-trapping gases that are wrapping an extra blanket on the planet.

    In 1965, scientists were sufficiently concerned about the risks of climate change for humans that they formally warned a U.S. president. And that was Lyndon B. Johnson. The IPCC report on the 1.5-degree target that came out in 2018 was absolutely clear. They said every bit of warming matters, every action matters, every choice matters, and, really, the time to act is now.

  • William Brangham:

    It seems that, just from what we understand of the draft language, that this points to very overtly so many other threads of our lives, the food that we eat, the air that we breathe, whether we can walk outside in temperatures that don't burn us.

    I mean, it seems like it is stretching to every aspect of what it takes to survive on Earth.

  • Katharine Hayhoe:

    That is exactly what is at stake.

    After the polar bear, we are next. Climate change is not something that needs to be moved up any of our priority lists. The only reason we care about it is because it affects every aspect of our lives, from literally the air we breathe, to the food we eat, to the safety of our homes, to our economy, to the health of our children.

    I'm part of an organization called Science Moms, where we connect climate change to moms and how we care about our kids.

    And one of my fellow Science Moms, Joellen Russell, who's at Arizona, she said today — she said: I had to wake my kids up at 5:00 a.m., so they could go outside to play because it was too hot and dangerous for them to play later in the day.

    How does that not matter to any parent?

  • William Brangham:

    I'm always leery of saying, well, this will be a turning point, this heat wave, this drought, this loss of ice.

    I wonder, why do you think it has us to take so long to appreciate the severity of this situation?

  • Katharine Hayhoe:

    We humans are really good at psychologically distancing ourselves from things that we think will matter in the future, but not now, from how much money we save for retirement, or how much we exercise, or don't, or what we eat and what we shouldn't.

    And it's same with climate change. It turns out, in the U.S., almost three-quarters of the people would say, oh, yes, climate change is real, it will affect future generations, it will affect plants and animals, it will affect people who live in countries far away.

    But when you say, do you think it will affect you, the number drops precipitously to just over 40 percent. That gap is our biggest problem, not the gap of people who say it isn't real, the gap of those of us who say is real, but we don't think it matters.

  • William Brangham:

    Right. I remember you saying before about how the two great myths are, it won't affect me, and there's nothing that I can do.

    So, for — this report certainly blows away that first myth, as you are saying. This certainly affects everybody that lives on this planet.

    What about that second issue, though? For someone who is hearing this news and paying attention to this, and despairing, rightly so, what do you say to them?

  • Katharine Hayhoe:

    To them I say, you know what? Every single one of us can make a difference.

    And here's the amazing thing. It all begins by talking about it, by having a conversation about why it matters, how it connects to what we're already passionate about, whether we're a mom, whether we live in California and we're worried about wildfires, whether we're worried about bigger, stronger hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, whether we're a farmer, whether we're a business owner, whether we care about national security.

    Talk about why it matters and talk about what we can do to fix it, from individual actions, like efficiency, clean energy, electric cars, reducing our meat intake, eating more plants, to much bigger scale. What can our company do? What could our school or university do? How could our place of worship help? How could our city get in on the action?

    Cities are really where it's at when it comes to climate action. We have to recognize that climate action is not a giant boulder sitting at the very bottom of the hill with only one or two hands trying to push it up an impossibly steep cliff. The boulder is already at the top of the hill. It's already starting to roll down. It's already got millions of hands on it. It just isn't going fast enough.

  • William Brangham:

    Another aspect that the U.N. report, this draft report touches on is our seeming failure at doing real adaptation to the threats we're already seeing, from rising seas, to droughts, to agriculture.

    What would you counsel governmental leaders to be doing on that front, to deal with the threats that are here today, even as we also try to deal with emissions longer term?

  • Katharine Hayhoe:


    We no longer have a choice between cutting our carbon emissions or adapting to climate change. We have to do both, because the third alternative is suffering. It's as if we have been smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for years and even decades. You might have some spots on your lungs and impaired breathing, but we don't have emphysema, we don't have lung cancer, and we're not dead yet.

    So how can we prepare for that future? We have to prepare our water systems, our infrastructure, our buildings, our food systems, even our national security systems. We have to prepare them for the changes that are coming.

    And we're already doing that. Adaptation is already happening. And along the way, it can save us money, it can clean up our air and our water, and it can provide us with much more healthy and livable cities too.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Professor Katharine Hayhoe, always good to see you. Thank you very much for being here.

  • Katharine Hayhoe:

    Thank you for having me.

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