Our Burning Planet

HUMANITY ON THE BRINK

UN chief calls new climate change report an ‘atlas of human suffering’ — but it’s not all bad news

Carcasses of sheep that died in a severe drought near a pastoralist settlement in Bandarbeyla district in Somalia’s semi-autonomous region of Puntland, on 24 March 2017. The world’s poorest countries will be hit hardest by climate hazards and climate change-driven extreme weather events. (Photo: EPA / Dai Kurokawa)

In some of the strongest language yet, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in a new report that climate change is a ‘threat to human wellbeing and planetary health and that humanity is on the brink of missing a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all’.

On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published Working Group II’s contribution to their Sixth Assessment Report, titled Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.

It was unambiguous in its language, saying: “The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: 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 IPCC’s most recent report follows 2021’s Working Group I contribution, which was described by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as being a “code red for humanity”.

Reacting to the release of the report on Monday at a press conference, Guterres, in a speech, described the document as “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. Nearly half of humanity is living in the danger zone — now. Many ecosystems are at the point of no return — now. Unchecked carbon pollution is forcing the world’s most vulnerable on a frogmarch to destruction — now. The facts are undeniable. This abdication of leadership is criminal. The world’s biggest polluters are guilty of arson of our only home,” he said.

climate risk planetary health
(Source: IPCC WGII Sixth Assessment Report)

Some of the key findings of the report — and the scientific confidence ascribed to them — include:

  • “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. Some development and adaptation efforts have reduced vulnerability. Across sectors and regions, the most vulnerable people and systems are observed to be disproportionately affected. The rise in weather and climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt (high confidence).
  • “Vulnerability of ecosystems and people to climate change differs substantially among and within regions (very high confidence), driven by patterns of intersecting socioeconomic development, unsustainable ocean and land use, inequity, marginalisation, historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism, and governance (high confidence).
  • “Global warming, reaching 1.5°C in the near-term, would cause unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards and present multiple risks to ecosystems and humans (very high confidence). The level of risk will depend on concurrent near-term trends in vulnerability, exposure, level of socioeconomic development and adaptation (high confidence). Near-term actions that limit global warming to close to 1.5°C would substantially reduce projected losses and damages related to climate change in human systems and ecosystems, compared to higher warming levels, but cannot eliminate them all (very high confidence).
  • “Beyond 2040 and depending on the level of global warming, climate change will lead to numerous risks to natural and human systems (high confidence). The magnitude and rate of climate change and associated risks depend strongly on near-term mitigation and adaptation actions, and projected adverse impacts and related losses and damages escalate with every increment of global warming (very high confidence).
  • “Climate change impacts and risks are becoming increasingly complex and more difficult to manage. Multiple climate hazards will occur simultaneously, and multiple climatic and non-climatic risks will interact, resulting in compounding overall risk and risks cascading across sectors and regions. Some responses to climate change result in new impacts and risks (high confidence).
  • “Progress in adaptation planning and implementation has been observed across all sectors and regions, generating multiple benefits (very high confidence). However, adaptation progress is unevenly distributed with observed adaptation gaps (high confidence).
  • “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). 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).
  • “Interactions between changing urban form, exposure and vulnerability can create climate change-induced risks and losses for cities and settlements. However, the global trend of urbanisation also offers a critical opportunity in the near term, to advance climate-resilient development (high confidence).
  • “Safeguarding biodiversity and ecosystems is fundamental to climate-resilient development, in light of the threats climate change poses to them and their roles in adaptation and mitigation (very high confidence).
  • “It is unequivocal that climate change has already disrupted human and natural systems. Past and current development trends (past emissions, development and climate change) have not advanced global climate-resilient development (very high confidence).”

Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance, an international coalition of health professionals and health civil society organisations said, “Last year’s IPCC report, The Physical Science Basis, clearly confirmed that with ‘rapid and substantial reductions’ we can still limit global warming. Today’s impact report spells out the consequences if we fail to make these changes — and they are severe.

“Every nation will be impacted — indeed we’re already seeing those impacts now, with heatwaves, flooding, superstorms, droughts and more threatening people’s physical and mental health, in rich, poor and middle-income countries around the world — and the poorest and most marginalised of our communities will be hit the hardest. These palpable signs of the climate crisis and the resulting health emergency must serve to spur us towards transforming our food, energy, health, and transportation systems to make them fit for purpose.”

climate risk planetary health
(Source: IPCC WGII Sixth Assessment Report)

Landry Ninteretse, regional director at 350Africa.org, said: “Fossil fuels continue to drive the climate crisis, leading to widespread devastation in vulnerable regions such as Africa where extreme and frequent weather events are being regularly experienced.

“The IPCC report calls for urgent action to meet mitigation and development goals. This means developed nations need to not only fulfil their promise of drastically reducing their emissions, and also commit finances towards adaptation, but also clean energy transition, technology transfer and mitigation in the Global South.”

Guterres, toward the end of his speech, noted that the report underscores “two core truths”. “First, coal and other fossil fuels are choking humanity.”

In an apparent reference to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the secretary-general said, “As current events make all too clear, our continued reliance on fossil fuels makes the global economy and energy security vulnerable to geopolitical shocks and crises. Instead of slowing down the decarbonisation of the global economy, now is the time to accelerate the energy transition to a renewable energy future. Fossil fuels are a dead end — for our planet, for humanity, and yes, for economies.”

climate risk planetary health
(Source: IPCC WGII Sixth Assessment Report)

The second core truth proffered by Guterres provided a glimmer of hope.

“Investments in adaptation work. Adaptation saves lives,” he said.

“As climate impacts worsen — and they will — scaling up investments will be essential for survival. Adaptation and mitigation must be pursued with equal force and urgency… Delay means death. I take inspiration from all those on the frontlines of the climate battle fighting back with solutions. All development banks — multilateral, regional, national — know what needs to be done: work with governments to design pipelines of bankable adaptation projects and help them find the funding, public and private,” Guterres said. DM/OBP

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