The last report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has delivered a clear message: climate change is hitting the world faster and harder than expected, and we have about a decade to reduce our emissions. carbon in order to avoid the worst. The far-reaching document represents the most recent science on climate change; its writing took on 234 scientists from 66 countries – and 517 additional contributors – who reviewed around 14,000 scientific papers over three years.
That’s a lot of scientists. One of them was Baylor Fox-Kemper, professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Brown University. Fox-Kemper was the lead author of Chapter Nine, which focuses on topics dear to Bostonians: oceans, ice, and sea level rise. Fox-Kemper has brought together more than 80 scientists to consensus during a global pandemic – an unprecedented challenge.
Did we mention that the work is unpaid? Yeah.
WBUR spoke to Fox-Kemper for the inner story of how he juggled climate grief and 12-hour zoom sessions to help put the report together.
The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Why did you volunteer for this? Were you trained in one way or another, or did you want to be a part of it?
I’ve been working on improving climate models for years – this is really the center of what my research group is working on. So when the poll came out, I answered and said “Sure! I expected to get a contributing author role.
But then it turned out that I was asked to take on this more serious role, which was really a major commitment. It was really intellectually stimulating and rewarding in the sense of the job, even though it was filled with all kinds of heartache about the climate change to come.
Did you get depressed? How are you doing?
I went through waves of initial excitement to be involved in the process, to some kind of climatic heartbreak in the middle where you just can’t handle the situation. Now I feel a little more determined to provide the most accurate information to people around the world so that they can prepare and also modify their shows so that we can avoid the worst effects.
This whole process took about three years – how does it actually work?
The IPCC office selected this whole team, and then we started talking to each other. We got together for the first time in Guangzhou, China, and figured out what tasks lay ahead. We met again in Toulouse, France, and then we had to meet a few more times, but that’s when COVID started, so we switched to Zoom.
What was it like going virtual? It sounds a bit disappointing, but maybe there were some advantages?
Well, we had these meetings every six months or so, and we were already pretty much working in between. So we had an online system to share drafts, and we were already doing teleconferences, to some extent.
But when you try to replace a weeklong meeting where you might be working 15- or 16-hour days with a Zoom version, it starts to get really intense. We’ve spent an average of 12.6 hours a day on Zoom over the past two weeks, so it’s been a grueling process.
Were you working at home during all of this? What did your family think about it?
They were extremely accommodating. I obviously couldn’t have done it without them.
I would go down to the back porch and sit outside and listen to those meetings and sing when I needed it, hoping the neighbors didn’t care that much.
You need to get approval from 195 member countries – do you feel like the results are watering down? Or do you think the report ends up being too conservative because you have to come to that consensus?
There’s that kind of Hollywood idea of how science works – a famous scientist, usually played by Jeff Goldblum, comes out and fixes the problem and you only need one scientist.
In reality, a scientific breakthrough usually comes from a scientist’s lab or maybe a team, but then it’s confirmed by multiple teams. And when we get multiple articles, multiple sources of evidence, okay, that’s when we say we have high trust or very high trust. So, yes, they don’t pay as much attention to isolated documents that might go against the grain. These might turn out to be correct, but we’ll get to them in the next one after a few more articles on the subject have been written.
Reading the report, it didn’t sound conservative – it sounded quite alarming.
Of course, there are a lot of alarming results in this report. But I think you could say he’s biased in favor of a more conservative approach. This is not an outside opinion on what could happen. This is in fact the consensus.
Let’s talk about that a bit. What does the sea level rise report tell us? What are we watching in Boston or New England?
Some of the sea level rise that we are going to see by 2050 is inevitable. I mean, it doesn’t matter if we use very low or very high emissions – we’ll see about nine to 11 inches of sea level rise from 2005 levels.
When we come out around 2100, we start to see a difference with what we do. For very low emissions, we see maybe one to two feet of sea level rise. And for very high emissions, we see a two to three foot sea level rise. And there are changes we can’t rule out that could occur in Greenland and Antarctica to the ice caps that could cause sea level to rise up to six feet in high emission scenarios by 2100.
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What else could have a drastic effect on sea level rise?
The Gulf Stream can change, especially the part of the Gulf Stream that rises to the North Atlantic and then sinks and descends. This part of the flow – we predict – will gradually slow down over the remainder of this century rather than collapse. But if it did collapse, we would immediately see a little over a foot of sea level rise here in New England. This is a low probability but high impact outcome.
Why would this happen? Can you give me some of the science behind this?
So the way the Gulf Stream works is that it has high sea level on one side and lower sea level on the other side. It’s a little more than three or four feet of difference from side to side.
Wow – weird! Like, in the middle of the ocean?
Yes, more than 50 to 100 kilometers away approximately. It’s much, much flatter than any road you’ve driven before, but it still slopes. So this tilt is part of the operating mechanism of the Gulf Stream – it is the pressure gradient that provides equilibrium with the Earth’s rotation to keep the Gulf Stream moving as it does. So if the Gulf Stream were to slow down, this pressure gradient would decrease a bit and this reduction would lead to a lower sea level on the sea side of the Gulf Stream and a rise in sea level on the shore side.
Other takeaways for our region?
It is expected to be warmer and more humid, especially in winter. Spring is said to have more extreme precipitation and more extreme drying when it is not raining. This is because as the atmosphere warms it can carry more water, which means it can dump more rain, but it can also extract more water from the ground.
On a personal note, I grew up on the Virginia coast and now live in Rhode Island and went to school in Cambridge. And, you know, for all of these places, it’s going to be a very difficult adjustment process to deal with what’s coming up. This will have a huge impact on our region and we will have a lot to deal with as we go. And part of that is whether or not we are able to reduce emissions globally. We are just going through a difficult time.
Are you happy to have participated in this process?
As difficult as this process was, all those grueling hours, it broadened my appreciation for other scientists and the IPCC office for being a community truly dedicated to bringing the best possible science to the widest possible audience. It’s an amazing community to have been a part of.