The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s new report warns that climate change is already causing widespread losses and damages worldwide. Its alarming findings are cause for grave concern – but the report is also clear on actions everyone must take. This ODI Insight considers the headlines, and how we should respond.
Losses and damages
The consequences of human-induced climate change are already extreme. Climate change is already causing loss of human life, as well as deep and irreversible changes to ecosystems – the natural world on which our societies depend.
Some of the changes are so-called ‘slow onset’ changes like the creeping rise of sea levels as glaciers and ice sheets melt and the warming ocean’s volume expands. Rising seas infiltrate groundwater and salinise the earth of low-lying areas, destroying freshwater supplies for residents and rendering land useless for farming.
Other damaging changes are ‘rapid onset’, in the form of more frequent and intense extreme events such as heat waves, droughts, wildfires, tropical storms, floods and storm surges. From 2000-2019, floods, droughts and storms together accounted for the majority (86%) of 46,000 lives lost in Africa to natural hazards – a devastating toll.
The IPCC report finds that 40% of humanity is now living in ‘climate change hotspots’ that are highly vulnerable to these phenomena.
The people most affected by these changes are those with the lowest historic greenhouse gas emissions, who have done least to cause the problem. They are people in low-income countries, island nations and indigenous communities. This is a deep injustice.
Communities in Africa, South Asia, Small Island Developing States, Central and South America and the Arctic are particularly affected.
Speaking with authority
The IPCC’s report is highly credible. Although the findings of the latest assessment report may sound like a disaster movie, in fact, when the IPCC speaks, every word is based on carefully-studied evidence. Climate scientists from around the world volunteer their time to assess the literature and compile the report. Two hundred and seventy scientists from 67 countries assessed an eye-watering 34,000 scientific papers and responded to 62,418 review comments to produce this week’s report. They also took it through a two-week governmental approval session before final publication.
1.5°C to stay alive
The IPCC’s 2021 report, a sister publication, found that average global temperatures are already 1.09°C above preindustrial levels, as a result of humankind’s burning fossil fuels and land use activities, such as deforestation. Countries’ current policies and plans put the world on a trajectory to reach almost 3°C of global warming this century. This week’s report makes it clear that a 3 degree world would be unliveable for most of humanity.
From today, it’s not possible to stop climate change completely in its tracks: carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere create inertia that will drive further warming. However, the headline goal of the Paris Agreement – to hold global warming to 1.5°C – is still just feasible, with a mammoth effort. It’s a goal we cannot afford to miss.
The most climate vulnerable countries and communities have adopted the slogan ‘1.5 to stay alive’. Above 1.5°C of global warming, the very existence of low-lying island states and the integrity of ecosystems that support deep-rooted livelihoods and cultures, such as coastal and freshwater fisheries and pastoralism, are at risk of loss in some places. (See IPCC factsheets for Africa and Central and South America).
Every action counts
The root cause of climate change is greenhouse gas emissions. This means that cutting greenhouse gas emissions radically is critical to reduce further losses and damages.
For individuals, the question is: ‘How can I avoid unnecessary emissions (or even lock up carbon in materials, plants and soils), in every choice I make to produce, purchase, consume or dispose of something?’
And then, ‘If I can’t find environmentally-sustainable choices that reduce the use of materials and energy, or use renewable and low-carbon sources, who can I lobby and influence for a better deal? How can I change my assumptions and behaviours and innovate new solutions myself?’
For institutions, including governments and businesses, the IPCC report is a reminder that global greenhouse gas emissions must fall by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050, to ‘keep 1.5 alive’. Policies, and critically, the finance to implement them, need to be aligned with these targets.
The onus falls heaviest on high-emitting countries and industries, and people with high-emitting lifestyles, everywhere. (It’s worth noting that a further IPCC report, on society-wide options for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, will be published in April 2022 and will further spur this effort.)
Twinned with action on emissions must come action on climate risk.
Managing compounding risks
One of the IPCC’s new messages is that climate risks are ‘compounding’. Extreme climate and weather events don’t just have a single, short-term impact, but create a domino effect of cascading impacts. A drought may lead to crop failure, with immediate impacts on food security and income of farming households. But reduced supply can drive up market prices and dent the affordability of food for the wider population. People may eat less, with effects on nutrition and potentially irreversible impacts on children’s growth, development and educational attainment.
There are already a profusion of national climate change adaptation plans; investor- and business-led climate risk management initiatives, such as the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures. Communities already have many coping strategies. However, the IPCC finds these initiatives fragmented, insufficient and uneven, in the face of the climate crisis.
The IPCC highlights how investments and institutional changes can most effectively help people adapt to climate change and reduce climate risks:
Invest in nature, the underpinning for human development and wellbeing, by conserving 30-50% of land and water-based ecosystems effectively from exploitation.
Transform cities, where more than half of the world’s population live, to be greener, more sustainable places. As well as curbing air pollution with harmful local and global effects (on the climate change mitigation side), this also means redeveloping cities with natural features such as trees, lakes and parks to help adaptation: buffering against urban heat island effects, flood risks and other climate hazards.
Get the most climate-affected people to the decision-making table to have a say in how societies respond to and manage compounding risks. Indigenous people, young people, women, people living with disabilities and others facing social and political disadvantage should all be involved in producing more coherent plans for climate change adaptation and risk-informed development.
Respect and share relevant local, indigenous knowledge for coping with climate variability and change. Engage and educate society widely on climate trends, and options for responding.
Get adaptation finance flowing to those who need it most: the most climate-vulnerable countries and communities. They have insufficient funds to adapt and manage their climate risks. They urgently need grant support (not more debt) to adapt to climate change and manage compounding risks, before many more lives and livelihoods are lost.
In summary: it’s time to get serious, systematic and sophisticated about analysing the cascading risks that climate change poses to economies, social systems and business models. That’s a tall and urgent challenge for institutions at all scales.
The challenge holds for individuals, families and social networks too. Ask yourself: where do I want to be in 5, 10 or 20 years’ time? In a different climate and with a new constellation of climate risks, how can I prepare myself for that world?