The catastrophic impacts of climate breakdown may soon outpace humanity’s ability to adapt to it, according to a new report.
Co-authored by 270 researchers from 67 countries, the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) describes “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” according to secretary general António Guterres: Half of the world’s population is threatened by water shortages; extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and severe; and more than 14 percent of the world’s species are at high risk of extinction as global temperatures rise.
“This IPCC report marks a turning point in the fight against climate change,” Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan said in a statement. “It forces us to reckon with a stark reality. The crisis is here, and it is all around us.”
And this is just the beginning. If climate breakdown continues to accelerate, “many parts of the world could soon face limits in how much they can adapt to a changing environment,” reports The New York Times.
The report’s bleak findings beg the question: Will humanity continue to edge toward a dangerous precipice or take a crucial step back to avert climate catastrophe?
In more than 2,000 pages, the report lays bare the inequities inherent in the climate crisis, stressing that the communities most vulnerable to climate impacts are also the least to blame.
Between 2010 and 2020, droughts, floods and storms killed 15 times as many people in highly vulnerable countries, particularly in Africa — which is responsible for less than 3 percent of global emissions — than in the wealthiest countries, the report finds.
“The new IPCC report is a wake-up call for immediate climate action and climate justice,” said Shyla Raghav, Conservation International's vice president of climate strategy. “It confirms that vulnerable communities across the globe are already facing the consequences of human-caused global warming — including reduced crop yields, migrations and humanitarian crises, and deterioration of mental health.”
According to Raghav, the response from the global community to these impacts has been “woefully inadequate.”
“Only 5 percent of global climate funding has ever gone to adaptation,” she said. “It’s time for developed countries, philanthropists, and the private sector to step up and provide financial support for the communities that are suffering the brunt of climate change.”
World leaders are set to gather in November for the United Nations climate summit (COP27) in Egypt to discuss how to slow climate change and help countries adapt to the impacts it’s already inflicted.
“Looking forward, the upcoming global climate change negotiations will be a watershed moment for elevating adaptation within the global climate agenda and generating the much-needed resources to address the staggering financing gap,” Raghav said.
While the report stresses the critical importance of cutting emissions to slow climate change, it also recognizes that some impacts are already “irreversible” — from rising sea levels to widespread wildfires.
Incremental measures to adapt to climate breakdown — such as building sea walls or early weather monitoring systems — are no longer going to cut it, according to the report’s authors. Instead, countries must implement “transformative changes,” shifting where and how people build homes, grow food, produce energy and conserve nature.
“We need transformative change at every level of our society,” Sanjayan said. “That means jettisoning society’s current methods and habits of consumption. It means putting more of our best and brightest minds on solving these issues.”
A Conservation International study lays out some of the additional ways society can make these transformative shifts in the face of climate change, such as helping communities relocate after a storm rather than trying to build back along the shoreline.
“We can’t just keep putting band-aids on the problem,” Raghav said. “It’s time to take a more radical approach by rethinking how we build resilient societies to prevent more human suffering in the future.”
A sliver of hope
According to the report, one of our greatest allies for adapting to — and mitigating — climate change is nature.
“Today’s report repeatedly calls out the role of nature as a key solution,” Raghav said. “Investments in nature, can bolster the resilience of ecosystems and communities alike, and support the long-term economic and societal transformations that are required to limit future losses and damages.”
A 2017 study by led by Conservation International’s Bronson Griscom found that nature can help provide nearly a third of the emissions reductions needed to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of temperature rise. Additionally, nature can help buffer coastal communities from sea-level rise, maintain water supplies during droughts, and cool cities and rural areas during heatwaves.
Moreover, experts say protecting nature by reducing deforestation and restricting the global wildlife trade can help prevent the next pandemic. The IPCC report urges "interventions that reduce pandemic and climate change risks while enhancing compound resilience, social justice and biodiversity conservation."
Though the report's findings are dire, "nature and the resilience of the human spirit gives us hope for the future,” Raghav said.
“Moving forward, there are a couple of key actions that can help us tackle the climate crisis, biodiversity loss and pandemic prevention simultaneously. We must mobilize funding to help vulnerable communities adapt to climate impacts, expand protections for our forests and oceans, and elect leaders — at local and national levels — who are ready to make the radical changes necessary to secure a healthy future for our planet."
Cover image: A flooded car, Thailand (© Giedrius Dagys)