Our Burning Planet


Our planet in peril – what climate science is saying

Our planet in peril – what climate science is saying
(Images: Unsplash / iStock)

Negotiations at any COP27 meeting are often fraught – especially when developing countries are demanding more from developed countries for loss and damage caused by the climate crisis. Or between fossil fuel proponents and environmentalists. But one thing that’s difficult to argue against is science.

A new report launched at this year’s meeting in Egypt has pulled together information from climate change research published in 2021 and 2022 to identify 10 salient climate science insights.

“Taken together they reveal the complexities of the interactions between climate change and other risks, such as conflicts, pandemics, food crises and underlying development challenges – pushing us ever closer to breaking past the socioecological limits within which people and ecosystems must remain to thrive,” the report notes.

Simon Steill, the UN’s climate change executive secretary, said at the launch of this report at COP27, held in Egypt over the past two weeks, “science is at the heart of everything that we do… Among the thousands of people here, all from different parts of the world, science is our common language.”

Here are the 10 insights: 

Questioning the myth of endless adaptation

What is clear is that our ability to adapt is not limitless, and so adaptation measures have to be paired with strong mitigation action.

Dr Debra Roberts, the co-chair of the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, explained previously that mitigation is dealing with the source of climate change, “either by stopping the production of greenhouse gases or increasing the sinks that are capable of absorbing them”, whereas adaptation is “the response to the changes that are now locked into the system and already occurring”. 

This report found that our potential to adapt to climate change impacts are not limitless – some are already locked into place.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “South Africa disappointed by adaptation progress at COP27

For example, climate scientist Chris Trisos, a senior researcher with the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town, said that “in some ecosystems, adaptation limits are already being reached, such as in warm-water tropical coral reefs, where marine heatwaves have led to mass coral bleaching, and then parts of Arctic ecosystems, with permafrost melt and ice sheet melt”.

And so, the report emphasises that due to these limits, adaptation actions can’t be a substitute for ambitious mitigation efforts.

Climate scientist and acting director of the School for Climate Studies at Stellenbosch University, Professor Guy Midgley, argues that mitigation and adaptation have to take place in tandem.

“For the longest time there was a firewall between adaptation and mitigation discussion,” said Midgely. “That’s finally been broken down, but we’ve got a backlog because of that firewall by developing countries, who didn’t want to really allow the adaptation discussion to proceed, because it was seen as a moral hazard – it was permitting the developed countries to get away with their emissions.”

Trisos, who was also the coordinating lead author of the Africa chapter of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report, explained that there were hard and soft limits to adaptation.

Hard limits mean we currently don’t have the technology or means to overcome limits, with soft limits being “you could adapt, but for financial, or political, or technological or societal reasons you weren’t able to”.

He added that “across Africa, we’re in a chronic situation of soft limits to adaptation. Africa could be much better adapted if there was sufficient finance and technology transfer, and political [drive].”

The report recommends that we overcome soft limits to adaptation with targeted financing and more effective governance structures.

Vulnerability hotspots cluster in ‘regions at risk’

“Vulnerability hotspots” are areas more susceptible to being affected by climate-driven hazards.

These hotspots are clustered in Central America, Asia, the Middle East and several regions of Africa: the Sahel and Central and East Africa. 

The report found that in vulnerability hotspots, mortality from floods, drought and storms is 15 times higher than in the least-vulnerable countries.

New threats on the horizon – health interactions

Climate change has an impact on the health of humans, animals and ecosystems.

For example, climate change is already responsible for close to 40% of heat-related deaths, wildfires affect physical and mental health, and infectious diseases are likely to increase because of climate change – especially water- and vector-borne diseases.

Trisos emphasised that instead of seeing the link between climate and health as a negative, “what you show is that acting on climate change has multiple other benefits for the environment and human development”. For example, “moving away from coal will reduce air pollution and reduce health risks for many South Africans who suffer from air pollution-related illnesses”.

So, addressing climate change can improve human health, improve energy security for households and increase biodiversity.

Climate mobility – from evidence to anticipatory action

As climate events such as extreme heat, flooding and droughts continue to increase in frequency and intensity, people will be forced to migrate, leaving communities displaced.

Thus, the report recommends that governments need to be prepared to support climate-related migration as well as try to minimise displacement.

Mitchelle Mhaka, the 0perations and programmes coordinator for youth climate activist organisation African Climate Alliance, said that considering the recent disasters in various provinces, it’s clear that if we continue on the current trajectory climate migration will occur, potentially putting strain on other provinces. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: “East Africa and the Horn light the way for climate migrants

“So it’s very important that South Africa prioritises adaptation so that the most vulnerable of our communities can actually withstand the impacts of climate change.

Human security requires climate security

While climate change does not cause conflict directly it can exacerbate existing vulnerabilities in human security, such as access to food, water and energy which can lead to violent conflict.

Thus human security issues, caused by governance and socioeconomic conditions need to be adequately addressed, as well as recognising that our dependency on fossil fuels creates major vulnerabilities for energy security.

Sustainable land use is essential to meeting climate targets

Instead of expanding agriculture into natural lands, research has found that we should use “sustainable agricultural intensification” and integrated land management.

For example, if we had a reliable water supply and soil integrity, food security can be improved in the face of extreme climate events like droughts.

Private sustainable finance practices are failing to catalyse deep transitions

We are not seeing enough investment from the private sector that is necessary to reach our climate targets.

The report found that this lack of investment shows that the private sector’s investment so far is designed to fit into their existing business models, rather than shift allocation to meaningful mitigation.

So, policymakers need to develop policies that are aimed directly at the financial sector that require the private sector (particularly banking and capital markets) to be transparent with the reporting of their emissions and that capital flows are aligned with our climate targets.

The report stated, “the finance sector must shake off endemic greenwashing”, noting that ESG ratings – which measure a company’s long-term environmental, social and governance risks – are “inadequate analytical tools” and that there are data gaps in climate disclosures.

While this point speaks mainly to banks (such as the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility), Midgley said he finds the report’s lack of reference to private-sector big business worrying. For example, he said we should be looking at the role of SpaceX and the private control of satellite launches.

“The richest of the rich are now much more powerful than many countries, than most countries. And we’ve got to talk about that. We risk going into a sort of oligarchy at the global level, and that’s very, very dangerous.”

Trisos agreed that there is huge responsibility on the private sector to invest in transformations at scale, but said that there is also not enough international financial flow from more developed countries to least developed countries.

Trisos said that while South Africa’s Just Energy Partnership is exciting, it’s focused mostly on mitigation, a lot of which is loan-based financing and he hasn’t seen enough grant-based finance for adaptation.

Loss and damage: the urgent planetary imperative

Losses and damages are the harms caused by climate change impacts that are difficult or impossible to avoid, even with mitigation and adaptation actions.

The report found that losses and damages, while already here and widespread, will increase exponentially on our current trajectory.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “What the world is learning from South Africa’s nascent Just Energy Transition Investment Plan

“Loss and damage is a sign that adaptation has not worked,” said Midgley.

“Recovering losses has got to be done in a way which results in better resilience into the future,” explaining that compensating for losses is not always possible – like in the stance of losing a species or a habitat.

Recommendations from the report include improving the accuracy of calculating ongoing and future losses and damages, so that it can be included in global stocktaking.

Inclusive decision-making for climate-resilient development

Who gets to sit at the table when discussing dealing with climate change impacts needs to be more inclusive. As it stands, inclusion in this area is inadequate, which affects the ability to meet climate action or justice.

Research has found that being inclusive, not just having policymakers at the table, leads to better and more just climate outcomes.

Activist Mhaka has faced this in the past and said that “we see that in leadership, a lot of the people who are leading have a serious disconnect with what’s on the ground. So if we can have representation for marginalised groups or disadvantaged groups, my thinking is that the creation of solutions will definitely serve these communities and these people.”

Breaking down structural barriers and unsustainable lock-ins

With the mitigation strategies we have in place, we will not reach our climate goals of remaining below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. 

And unfortunately, as with most things, the cost of climate change is shouldered by communities who the report states are “deprived of the collective agency to resist”. DM

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