Intensifying climate risks are already pushing the limits of nature and humanity and threaten to surpass the world’s ability to adapt if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t immediately reduced, according to the second part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest assessment report, published Monday.
The 3,675-page paper represents “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres.
Among its findings, the report says:
- The rise in weather and climate extremes has inflicted “irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt”
- Only by strengthening and accelerating emissions cuts can humanity avoid creating an uninhabitable world with frequent disruption of food production and supply chains, widespread economic losses, and intensifying deadly events like floods and heat waves
- Roughly half the global population (3.3 to 3.6 billion people) lives in areas “highly vulnerable” to climate change
- “Unsustainable” human consumption and development are ratcheting up ecosystems’ and people’s vulnerability to climate hazards
- Climate risks and impacts “are becoming increasingly complex” and harder to manage
- Limiting climate change to 1.5°C would still unleash “unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards and present multiple risks to ecosystems and humans”
- If warming exceeds 1.5°C, “many human and natural systems will face additional severe risks,” and some of these will be “irreversible”
“Any further delay” on climate mitigation and adaptation “will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all,” the report concludes.
The paper should rally businesses of all sizes to take action now to slash their carbon emissions, embrace a low-carbon transition, and ramp up investment in climate adaptation. A precautionary approach is the most prudent course of action to avoid the worst climate impacts that have been projected by the IPCC.
What the report says on current and future climate impacts
Chapter after chapter of the report describes the current physical impacts of climate change, and how these will intensify in the future.
Climate change has already inflicted “substantial damages and increasing irreversible losses” to land ecosystems and is exposing “ocean and coastal ecosystems to conditions that are unprecedented over millennia.” Current warming has changed the movement of animal species on land and in oceans, while further temperature rises will lead to mass species extinction and the breakdown of crucial ecosystems. Already, 44% of species in biodiverse areas are at high risk of extinction due to climate change.
Crucially, the report says with high confidence that human and ecosystem vulnerability to climate risks are interdependent — meaning that as ecosystems collapse, humanity’s exposure to climate risks increases.
The human costs of climate change are also laid out in detail. Today’s warming is already slowing the rate of food growth, making it harder for humanity to feed itself. Water scarcity currently impacts half the world’s population for at least some of the year. Furthermore, climate change is “contributing to humanitarian crises,” while extreme weather events “are increasingly driving displacement in all regions.”
Cities are particularly high-risk zones because of their locations, population sizes, and density, the report says. Observed climate change has already hit “human health, livelihoods and key infrastructure” in urban regions, while heat waves have grown more dangerous in cities “where they have also aggravated air pollution events.”
Climate risks to cities are predicted to escalate as global warming advances, particularly to those in high-temperature regions and along coastlines. Population changes in low-lying cities will lead to around one billion people being at risk of “coastal-specific climate hazards in the mid-term.” Worldwide, the amount of urban land exposed to both floods and droughts is expected to increase 250% between 2000 and 2030.
The financial risks to cities are also gargantuan. By 2100, the report says the value of global assets in high-risk coastal floodplains could be between USD$7.9tn and USD$14.2tn.
The findings should act as a wake-up call for governments, businesses, and other stakeholders. Huge investments are required now to strengthen, support, and renew ecosystems that can bolster the resilience of nature and humanity to climate risks. Indeed, the report says there is “robust evidence” that nature-based solutions and “ecosystem-based adaptation” would protect people, species, and habitats.
What the report says on climate adaptation
In response to escalating climate impacts, the IPCC report says adaptation efforts “have been observed across all sectors and regions, generating multiple benefits.” However, “adaptation gaps” persist, and many initiatives “prioritize immediate and near-term climate risk reduction,” crowding out “transformational” projects that would change how humanity builds, farms, produces energy, and protects nature.
Crucially, the report says there is “negligible evidence that existing responses are adequate to reduce climate risk.” Put simply, humanity is not doing enough to head off the worst physical outcomes of climate change.
To change course, the report says certain conditions have to be put in place: political commitment and follow-through toward adaptation; the setting up of “institutional frameworks, policies and instruments with clear goals and priorities;” improved understanding of climate impacts and solutions; and the “mobilization of and access to adequate financial resources.”
This last recommendation should act as a signal for financial institutions and other businesses to significantly ramp up their spending on climate adaptation. Right now, capital flows to adaptation solutions make up just 4-8% of all climate finance, the report says. Increasing these would be economically wise and yield substantial returns. For example, the report states that USD$1.8tn of investment today in measures like early warning systems, improved dryland agriculture crop production, global mangrove protection, and climate-resilient infrastructure would produce USD$7.1tn in benefits.
However, the report also makes clear that there are limits to what adaptation can achieve. While it can “substantially reduce the adverse impacts of 1-2°C of global temperature rise,” losses will rise beyond this limit, and some adaptation measures will “become less effective.” This is why the report doubles down on climate mitigation as the best means to tackle climate risks. It was a message relayed loud and clear by the UN’s Guterres, who had a warning for governments and businesses alike: “You cannot claim to be green while your plans and projects undermine the 2050 net-zero target and ignore the major emissions cuts that must occur this decade.”
How to interpret the report against current global events
Climate change is a natural threat multiplier. The past week’s events make it clear that fossil fuels are a threat multiplier, too. We live in a world of instability and conflict that reminds us that climate resiliency must start with the clean energy transition.
Decision-makers should rapidly internalize the truths set out in the IPCC report and ensure we build up climate resiliency at every opportunity.