Half of the global population is highly vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis and the opportunity to secure a “liveable” future for all is fast disappearing, a major new assessment by the world’s leading scientists has warned.
“Unequivocal” human-caused global warming is already dangerously disrupting the natural world and some of its effects are irreversible, according to the second chapter of the sweeping report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The assessment, the most authoritative look at global climate change, published about every seven years, explores how rising temperatures are affecting communities and ecosystems, and what capacity there is to adapt.
The final, virtual approval sessions for the IPCC report, released with approval from 195 member governments, ran late into the night.
“Climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all,” the authors warned.
Exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) of warming – the ambitious target set by the Paris Agreement – will happen in the “near-term”, the report said. So far, the world has warmed 1.1C above pre-industrial levels, and is already experiencing more severe heat, storms, flooding, and wildfires. Even temporarily surpassing 1.5C would cause unavoidable increases in multiple hazards, the IPCC says.
Holding as close to 1.5C as possible would substantially reduce threats, compared to higher warming levels, but “cannot eliminate them all”. Our efforts to adapt to climate change have not gone far enough, and in some places, have already reached the limit.
While the authors say we need much faster “transformational” action, they also underline that there are right and wrong ways to go about this.
Meanwhile, adapting to climate change will become more difficult as temperatures continue to rise. In some regions this will go from challenging to “impossible” if temperatures exceed 2C (3.6F), says the report.
Other key findings include:
– Approximately 3.3 to 3.6 billion people live in conditions that are highly vulnerable to climate change
– Some losses are already irreversible, such as the first species extinctions driven by climate change
– Adverse impacts are “cascading” along coasts and cities, and in mountainous regions. These hazards trigger tipping points in sensitive ecosystems, and in systems impacted by ice melt, permafrost thaw and changing hydrology in polar regions
– The most vulnerable people and ecosystems are being the hardest hit
– Weather extremes are occurring simultaneously, exposing millions of people to acute food and water insecurity especially in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, on Small Islands and in the Arctic
– Mental health impacts assessed for the first time, and linked to rising heat, trauma from extreme events, and loss of livelihoods and culture. Children, teens, the elderly, and those with underlying health conditions are particularly affected.
Hoesung Lee, chair of the IPCC, called the report “a dire warning about the consequences of inaction”.
“Our actions today will shape how people adapt and nature responds to increasing climate risks,” he said.
The report, involving 270 climate experts from 67 countries, was released in the shadow of the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces. Last week it emerged that Ukrainian scientists were forced to abandon the virtual approval session for the IPCC report out of fear for their families.
Ukrainian scientists had tried to remain part of the process for the seminal report, even as they hid in bomb shelters and battled lack of internet access, Politico reported on Friday.
During a briefing on Sunday, Professor Daniela Schmidt, a IPCC lead author from the University of Bristol, made an emotional statement about the conflict.
“The Ukrainian delegation has asked all of us to continue and has expressed how upset they are that this will distract from the importance of the report,” she said.
Referring to Ukrainian invasion, Professor Schmidt said: “The head of the Russian delegation has expressed very clearly that this is not the wish of all the Russian people, and the Russian people were not asked.”
On Tuesday, Russian scientists and scientific journalists published an open letter condemning attacks on Ukraine.
“Many of us have relatives, friends and scientific colleagues living in Ukraine. Our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers fought together against Nazism,” they wrote. The war would turn Russia into a “pariah”, they noted, and that conducting scientific research would be “unthinkable” without international cooperation.
The report reflects the progress made in the field of attribution – the science of how human-caused climate change is influencing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.
Hundreds died in heatwaves in the past year from the US and Canada to India, along with Iraq and other areas of the Middle East. Flooding has devastated regions of Nigeria, India, China, Germany, Belgium and the UK, while wildfires have exploded across the Brazilian Amazon, Siberia, southern Europe and the American West.
Extreme events are leading to cascading impacts that are increasingly difficult to manage.
The new report found that many parts of the natural world are near the hard limits of their natural adaptation including warm water coral reefs, and tropical rainforests.
Some communities living along coastlines and small-holder farmers are facing so-called “soft limits” to adapting to climate impacts, such as a lack of money.
There are also “hard limits” for people’s ability to adapt. Above 1.5C, limited freshwater resources pose potential hard limits for small island communities, and for regions dependent on glacier and snow-melt.
At 2C warming, agriculture will be further hit including multiple staple crops, particularly in tropical regions.
The new assessment placed far more emphasis on how reliant humans are on nature and healthy ecosystems. It calls for conserving up to 50 per cent of land, fresh water and ocean habitats, along with restoring degraded ecosystems. The report particularly emphasises the importance of knowledge from Indigenous Peoples and local communities in doing so.
The physical impacts of climate change on people were discussed at length. In all regions, extreme heat events have caused deaths and illness, the authors noted.
Climate-related food-borne and water-borne diseases have increased due to conditions which allow diseases to travel into new areas or better reproduce. Animal and human diseases, including those which can jump from animals to humans like coronaviruses, are emerging in new areas. Water and food-borne disease risks have increased in some regions.
Increased exposure to wildfire smoke and atmospheric dust have been associated with cardiovascular and respiratory distress. Meanwhile, extreme events like flooding disrupt communities’ abilities to access health care.
Mental health impacts from climate change were linked to increasing temperatures, trauma from weather and climate extreme events, and loss of livelihoods and culture.
This anxiety and stress is projected to rise under further global warming, particularly for children, adolescents, elderly, and those with underlying health conditions.
Cities, home to more than half the global population, are hotspots of impacts and risks, but also a crucial part of the solution.
Extreme climate-related weather events such as heatwaves, storms, droughts and flooding, along with slow-onset events like sea-level rise, negatively impact infrastructure like energy grids and public transport. Those in low income and marginalised communities are impacted the worst, and have the least resources to adapt.
However cities can also be the source of action, for example with “green buildings”, reliable supplies of clean water and renewable energy, and sustainable transport that helps connect urban and rural areas.
Since the last IPCC report in 2014, experts have more evidence of adaptation measures that have been implemented – those which have worked, and those with unintended negative consequences.
One example of this so-called “maladaptation” is sea walls. While they may help protect people from flooding in one location, sea walls can cause problems for others living further down a coastline.
Maladaptation especially negatively impacts Indigenous Peoples, ethnic minorities and low-income households, the authors note.
The first instalment of the 6th cycle of the IPCC report was published in August and revealed that “it is more likely than not” that the world will reach 1.5C at some point over the next 20 years. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called the report a “code red for humanity”.
The third part will focus on mitigation – what needs to be done to limit planet-heating emissions – and is expected at the beginning of April.
While there are many dire warnings in today’s report, the authors also make clear that there is still significant opportunity to adapt but that accelerated strategies are needed, alongside slashing planet-heating greenhouse gas emissions.
Dr Helen Adams, a senior lecturer in disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation and IPCC author, said the path would be determined by the choices that societies and decision makers take. For example, if countries decide to invest in universal health care to help with rising cases of climate-linked illnesses, or install early warning systems for extreme weather.
“Yes, things are bad,” she said. “But the future depends on us, not the climate.”
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