The IPCC Has a Message: This Is Our Last Window to Act
We want to acknowledge the tragedy and suffering now underway in the war in Ukraine. Our thoughts are with the Ukrainian people and our brave Ukrainian Climate Reality Leaders while we continue to work for just climate solutions.
This week, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the gold standard of climate science research – released a startling new report that – over the course of nearly 3,700 pages –offers humanity a simple choice.
Begin rapid energy transition and transformational adaptation to climate change in this decade – or face a future of calamitous storms, heatwaves, and more that inflicts unconscionable suffering on the world’s poor and vulnerable.
If you’ve been following climate news in recent years, the broad strokes of many of the findings will be familiar. But the full detail of climate change’s impact on human communities and our natural world – captured in the eerie bureaucratese of the UN – and the misery it could yet unleash still hit with the brute force of a wrecking ball.
Or as UN Secretary-General António Guterres put it, “Today’s IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership. With fact upon fact, this report reveals how people and the planet are getting clobbered by climate change.”
There is, on a basic human level, a glass half-empty/half-full choice about what to do with the brutal catalogue of climate-inflicted destruction and misery – both here now and yet to possibly occur – captured in the report.
Because, as the IPCC makes crystal clear, powerful and in some cases irreversible changes are already baked into our climate system, with a new normal of more and more extreme weather, rising seas, and melting ice always now with us.
With this kind of news, there can be a report to check out. To give into the siren call of doomerism and related fantasies and start googling bunker designs. But what the report is equally clear about is the fact that how much change we unleash on the world is still very much in our hands. We still have one final window this decade to prevent catastrophe. A quickly shrinking one, yes, but a window all the same. To our mind, that’s worth fighting for.
Five key points to take away here.
1. We are living with climate change now – and we always will.
The time when climate change was a potential problem for the future is firmly in the rearview mirror. As the report states:
“Human-induced climate change, including more frequent and intense extreme events, has caused widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people, beyond natural climate variability.”
In plain English, it’s unequivocably here now – and it’s not going anywhere.
Critically, the degree of the degrees of global warming we see matters. Immensely. Reaffirming earlier reports, the meaningful number is 1.5 degrees Celsius (the aspirational target of the Paris Agreement). Crossing that line – what the report terms “overshoot” – “would cause unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards and present multiple risks to ecosystems and humans.”
Even fractions of a degree make a difference, with the authors noting with high confidence that “Risk of severe impacts increase with every additional increment of global warming during overshoot.”
2. Climate-fueled destruction is already immense – and worse than we thought.
There are points in reading the IPCC report where you can feel your knees buckle and the ground opening below.
Part of this power comes – perversely – from the purely affect-free prose the writers use to pass the censors of Saudi Arabia, Russia, and all other petro-states in the 195 governments who must all approve every word for publication, all while describing with no emotion whatsoever the comprehensive destruction fossil fuels and climate change have already unleashed throughout the natural world. More widespread than we knew. More devastating than we thought.
But these are the facts. Like it or not, this is our world. Witness (emphasis ours):
“Climate change has caused substantial damages, and increasingly irreversible losses, in terrestrial, freshwater and coastal and open ocean marine ecosystems (high confidence). The extent and magnitude of climate change impacts are larger than estimated in previous assessments (high confidence). Widespread deterioration of ecosystem structure and function, resilience and natural adaptive capacity, as well as shifts in seasonal timing have occurred due to climate change (high confidence), with adverse socioeconomic consequences (high confidence) . . . Some losses are already irreversible, such as the first species extinctions driven by climate change (medium confidence). Other impacts are approaching irreversibility such as the impacts of hydrological changes resulting from the retreat of glaciers, or the changes in some mountain (medium confidence) and Arctic ecosystems driven by permafrost thaw (high confidence).”
Side note: “High confidence” in the parlance of the notoriously risk-averse IPCC is roughly equivalent to “The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.”
The impacts on humanity have been no less severe, from spreading disease to extreme heat to the trauma of displacement:
“Climate change has adversely affected physical health of people globally (very high confidence) and mental health of people in the assessed regions (very high confidence). . . In all regions extreme heat events have resulted in human mortality and morbidity (very high confidence). The occurrence of climate-related food-borne and water-borne diseases has increased (very high confidence). The incidence of vector-borne diseases has increased from range expansion and/or increased reproduction of disease vectors (high confidence). Animal and human diseases, including zoonoses, are emerging in new areas (high confidence). . . In assessed regions, some mental health challenges are associated with increasing temperatures (high confidence), trauma from weather and climate extreme events (very high confidence), and loss of livelihoods and culture (high confidence).
3. Climate change will accelerate suffering and inequality – no two ways about it.
One of the clearest refrains repeated throughout the report is that climate change will threaten the most basic access to food and water for millions around the world, with the poor and most vulnerable hardest hit of all.
“Increasing weather and climate extreme events have exposed millions of people to acute food insecurity and reduced water security, with the largest impacts observed in many locations and/or communities in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Small Islands and the Arctic (high confidence). Jointly, sudden losses of food production and access to food compounded by decreased diet diversity have increased malnutrition in many communities (high confidence), especially for Indigenous Peoples, small-scale food producers and low-income households (high confidence), with children, elderly people and pregnant women particularly impacted (high confidence). Roughly half of the world’s population currently experience severe water scarcity for at least some part of the year due to climatic and non-climatic drivers (medium confidence).”
4. We cannot simply adapt our way out – not in the ways we have been.
As the authors make abundantly clear, there are real and finite limits to how much adaptation measures – at least as currently practiced – can limit misery and the worst impacts of climate change. And we’re rapidly approaching those limits now.
“Many natural systems are near the hard limits of their natural adaptation capacity and additional systems will reach limits with increasing global warming (high confidence). Ecosystems already reaching or surpassing hard adaptation limits include some warm water coral reefs, some coastal wetlands, some rainforests, and some polar and mountain ecosystems (high confidence). Above 1.5°C global warming level, some ecosystem-based adaptation measures will lose their effectiveness in providing benefits to people as these ecosystems will reach hard adaptation limits (high confidence).”
5. This will be the decade humanity decides
Throughout the report, there is the sound of a clock ticking. As the authors make clear, we are in the last decade to begin the transformational measures both in energy transition and social change we need to have a hope of preventing the worst and opening the door to anything like an equitable future.
Part of this means rethinking top-down and purely technocratic approaches that have led to disastrous consequences for many Indigenous peoples and communities around the world. This means a new approach to decision making that actively engages all those affected and leans as much on Indigenous knowledge and natural systems as the wonders of Silicon Valley.
“There are feasible and effective adaptation options which can reduce risks to people and nature. The feasibility of implementing adaptation options in the near-term differs across sectors and regions (very high confidence). The effectiveness of adaptation to reduce climate risk is documented for specific contexts, sectors and regions (high confidence) and will decrease with increasing warming (high confidence). Integrated, multi-sectoral solutions that address social inequities, differentiate responses based on climate risk and cut across systems, increase the feasibility and effectiveness of adaptation in multiple sectors (high confidence).
Cooperation, and inclusive decision making, with local communities and Indigenous Peoples, as well as recognition of inherent rights of Indigenous Peoples, is integral to successful forest adaptation in many areas. (high confidence).”
The Time Is Now
We cannot go back to a world without climate change. But what the IPCC hammers home is that we can still avert global catastrophe and protect poor and vulnerable peoples who’ve done the least to cause that crisis.
And that’s worth fighting for.
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