Published: December 1, 2021

Climate Crisis Report: Grim, with a Glimmer of Hope

Alert

Here’s why we remain hopeful—and motivated to act.

A monarch butterfly perches on a purple blazing star flower on a sunny day. Black-eyed Susans and other prairie plants are in the background.

In August 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its most comprehensive report on the physical science of climate change to date. You need not be a climate scientist to guess the results were not great—to put it lightly. 

The IPCC gathers the best current science so decision-makers around the world can decide how to act when it comes to climate science. (Hank Green’s How To Fix the Climate video gives more insight into how governments do this.) The report was based on 14,000 scientific papers.

If you’re up-to-date on this report and its findings, you can jump over the recap and straight to why we’re still hopeful and what we can all do in this time of crisis. 

Otherwise, let’s take a deep breath and dig in.

An aerial view of a waterside settlement in the Peruvian rainforest.

One of the most biodiverse places on the planet: Loreto, Peru. Our Keller Science Action Center has been working there for the last 20 years.

Álvaro del Campo

Key takeaways

Although the IPCC report doesn’t explicitly say that nations haven’t done enough to curb fossil fuel emissions (that’s the brief of an upcoming report due out in March 2022), nations haven’t done enough to curb fossil fuel emissions. This means global warming will continue to intensify over the next 30 years—and beyond—or until humanity stops adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and starts removing it and other greenhouse gases from the air to reach what we call “net zero.” 

We’re already experiencing the effects of a hotter Earth—marginalized communities all the more so. And the fatal heat waves, floods, and wildfires that have ravaged the Earth from California all the way to China will only get worse. 

Moreover, if we don’t act immediately and globally, total global warming will rise 1.5 degrees Celsius—and likely even more—over the next 20 years. This small temperature increase brings big trouble for our planet.

Right here, right now

Climate change isn’t a crisis future generations will inherit. It’s happening right now, and it’s affecting every region on Earth. Communities, crops, and species around the world are suffering and dying as a result of extreme heat, intensifying weather events, and rising sea levels.

[Climate change] is already affecting every region on Earth in multiple ways.

Ko Barrett, vice chair of the IPCC and senior adviser for climate at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Of course we want to save the planet for future generations, but the crisis is more urgent than that. To recall a popular comic and meme, things are not fine. No one calls the fire department just to save their children’s inheritance. They call because they’re caught in a burning building. Since our home is (literally) on fire, now is the time to start acting accordingly. 

What’s so bad about 1.5 degrees?

Because of the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases humans have pumped into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, the world has already warmed about 1.1 degrees Celsius. That may sound negligible—as if we’ve just bumped up the globe’s thermostat one degree. Consider the human body, though. The average body temperature is 98.6°F. Increase that by two degrees Fahrenheit and you’re running a fever. Just another two degrees, or a 102.6°F fever, would be cause for alarm, especially if sustained and accompanied by other symptoms.

For historical context, global temperatures were only about 4°C cooler during the last ice age than they are today. And a recent paper published in Nature analyzes the dramatic change in heat waves over the last decade from just a .25°C increase.

While a degree or two seems inconsequential when it comes to localized daily weather, the sustained, global warming of the planet is a whole different matter—like a fever, it’s a systemic problem ailing the entire body.

A landscape at dawn or dusk of a group of trees in water. There's a halo formed from a rainbow reflected in the water. A man sits on the bow of a boat at far left, and a piece of wood sticks up out of the water to the right.

Sunrise on Laguna la Culebra in the Colombian Amazon, a biodiversity hotspot where Field Museum scientists work.

Jorge Enrique García Melo

We know that we’re already feeling the consequences of that 1.1°C rise in climate changes that “are widespread, rapid, intensifying, and unprecedented in thousands of years,” according to Ko Barrett, vice-chair of the IPCC. 

Scientists predict that an additional 1.5 degrees of warming will lead to 1 billion people suffering through frequent heat waves, hundreds of millions of people dealing with severe drought, and entire species continuing to die off.

A collections drawer full of small bluish-purple pinned butterfly specimens.

In the early 1940s, the Xerces blue butterfly became the first insect to go extinct in the U.S. as a result of human activity.

© Field Museum

To limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius requires immediate action. A previous IPCC report estimates the world’s nations will need to cut emissions by at least 45% by 2030 to prevent warming in excess of 1.5 degrees. 

On September 17, the United Nations warned we’re on track for 2.7 degrees of warming after many world leaders submitted their revised climate action plans in the lead-up to COP26 in Glasgow. This would be cataclysmic. Certain crises are already locked in, like a huge increase in coastal flooding events. With each additional degree of warming over 1.5°C, Earth passes other dangerous tipping points: the irreversible melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest.

Climate science is getting better

The silver lining in this very dark storm cloud? More observational data, better computer modeling, and faster simulations all mean we have more confidence in the forecast. As Hank Green points out in an explainer video, this means we have certainty around the causes of climate change and our ability to change the outcomes. 

Some people, like climate scientist Dr. Kate Marvel, consider certainty even better than hope. 

There’s one species to blame

Spoiler alert: it’s us. According to the IPCC Report, “it’s unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land.” 

To Dr. Marvel’s point, however, if we caused this mess that means we have agency to fix it. But as U.N. Secretary General António Guterres stresses, “It is clear that everyone must assume their responsibilities.” We can absolutely avoid the 2.7 degrees Celsius increase we might be headed for—and the disastrous results.

It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land.

IPCC Sixth Assessment Report

Avoid the worst and build a better world

How do we avoid the worst when things are so bad? Also, I’m just one person! These are both fair things you might be thinking right now. No one person, no single nation created the climate crisis—and no one person or nation will save us. It’s going to take all of us working together. 

The Field’s Keller Science Action Center staff works every day to conserve the planet. Their main areas of focus are Chicagoland and the Andes-Amazon region. They contribute their expertise to action guides and research that inform policy and legislation, all while working with youth and engaging communities near the Museum. 

Our Andes-Amazon scientists are contributors to the first-ever Science Panel for the Amazon (SPA) report—a body of work equivalent to the IPCC Reports on climate change. The report assesses the current state of the Amazon; describes social, environmental, and economic trends that affect the region; and offers recommendations for the long-term health of the ecosystem and its people. 

We talked to these conservation heroes about what we can all do—as individuals and together as community members—to help our home. Here’s what they recommend and practice:

Stay informed and vote

Fixing this crisis requires policy change. Stay informed about the issues, and vote for the people you believe will forge a better future for the planet and people living here.  Remember: there’s inspiring climate change news, too!

Invest some time and energy—together!

  • Get outside. Enjoying natural areas and local parks, which store carbon, can restore and keep you motivated in the climate fight.

  • Volunteer for the natural areas you love. Many Forest Preserves, like Cook County, need volunteers to help with habitat restoration. Or, participate from your own backyard by joining the Field’s monarch community science program.

  • Get your neighbors together to take on a project that slows climate change or helps your community adapt to it. Communities are turning to urban farming, outdoor play spaces, community solar, and green jobs training to improve their quality of life and save the planet at the same time. One project, like converting a vacant lot to a garden, can serve multiple community needs. Speaking of which, don’t forget to check on your neighbors during heat waves. 

  • Research energy policies and other relevant measures proposed in your town, county, state, or country. See if you can move these forward by gathering signatures to get such a measure on a ballot or by going door-to-door to talk with folks about these policies. 

  • Retrofit your home so that you’re able to heat and cool it using less energy. If you own your property and plan on staying in it for the foreseeable future, installing on-site renewables might also make sense. 

Eat less meat

About one-seventh of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from raising animals for human consumption. Less demand for meat means less animal meat produced. If you can’t imagine life without a hamburger or pepperoni pizza, that’s okay. Focus on cutting back, not cutting it out completely. The Keller Science Action Center’s Climate Toolkit has guides to a climate-friendly diet and more. 

Swap your wheels 

  • Transportation is the second-highest contributor to greenhouse gases in Chicago. If your community or work commute does not provide these options, find a local transportation advocacy organization and get involved.

  • If you have the resources, buy an electric vehicle.

Plant the seeds

We’d love to know what other actions you’re taking to fight against climate change. Tell us with #OnItTogether so we can share your inspiring ideas.

A hard but hopeful future

Even if you’re doing all the above, these are still not easy times. Many experience solastalgia —the emotional or existential distress caused by environmental change. Some of us feel less hopeful than ever before. 

Marisa Lee, who writes about everything from grief to serving as a former Obama staffer, says, “Hope is not light or cheerful. It is a disciplined practice.” This perspective on hope—which is so often conflated with optimism—might help you stay committed in the face of so much bad news. 

Amy Rosenthal, Director of the Field’s Keller Science Action Center, says, “When it comes to the question of hope, I think about the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, whose newspaper's tagline was 'Pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will.' That's what we need to propel ourselves forward, even in the darkest hours. We have what it takes to make a difference." 

Juliana Philipp, also of the Action Center, says, “I work with scientists and others across the globe to make field guides. The passion, resilience, and diversity of this group of people keep me going. I'm always learning something new from them—they keep my heart open and my mind curious about the world.”

Purple prairie clover is a native plant that does well in the sun and attracts pollinators with its brightly colored blooms.

Iza Redlinski, © Field Museum

Research scientist Eli Suzukovich speaks at a 2019 seed harvesting event with the Chicago American Indian community.

John Weinstein, © Field Museum

  • Birds are shrinking as the climate warms

    Forty years of data show that migratory birds have been getting smaller. Long-term studies like this one, published in Ecology Letters, are key to identifying trends caused by environmental changes.

  • Fish diversity and forest health

    Scientists investigated fish populations in Guyana, which helped to show why aquatic corridors matter in conservation. Their study, published in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, makes an important case that protecting one tiny corner of the Guiana Shield can help protect biodiversity across the Amazon.

  • Deforestation is stressing mammals out

    Higher levels of stress hormones are found in rodents and marsupials in deforested patches of South America's Atlantic Forest, in a paper published in Scientific Reports. The destruction of an animal’s habitat can drastically change its life, with less food and territory to go around.

     

  • Impact of climate on rainforest biodiversity

    A study in Biotropica examined data on small mammals in South America. It found something surprising: that climate may affect biodiversity in rainforests even more than deforestation does.