Article | 5 min read

Adapting to a Warming World

by Adam Vaughan (New Scientist)
Published 1 August 2022

This feature by New Scientist’s, Adam Vaughan, highlights the findings of the IPCC 2021 report and that ”It will be increasingly difficult to adapt to a warming world, but it's not too late.”

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CLIMATE change is already causing widespread, pervasive and sometimes irreversible harm to people and ecosystems globally, according to a landmark report warning it has become increasingly clear there are limits to how much humanity can adapt to rising temperatures.

The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that up to 3.6 billion people live in areas highly vulnerable to climate change, largely from extreme heat, heavy rainfall, drought and weather setting the stage for fires. During a press conference, UN secretary-general António Guterres called it "an atlas of human suffering".

Since the panel's last assessment eight years ago, it has increasingly been possible to pin the impacts of extreme weather events on human-made climate change. A clear message from the report is that holding warming to the Paris Agreement's 1.5°C goal will limit its impacts and make adaptation more feasible. Despite the pledges nearly 200 countries made in the Glasgow Climate Pact at the COP26 summit last November, the world is still on track for more than 2°C of warming.

The report finds that climate change is already affecting people's physical health and explicitly mentions mental health too, for the first time in an IPCC report. Helen Adams at King's College London, an IPCC lead author, says the main mental toll is from extreme weather impacts, such as dealing with flooded homes, but also through "eco-anxiety".

Climate change's burdens are falling unequally, with the world's most vulnerable people mostly in low-income nations, says the report. Deaths from floods, droughts and storms in such places were found to be 15 times higher than the least vulnerable areas, mostly high-income nations, between 2010 and 2020. Overall, the economic impact of a rapidly warming world has been adverse, according to the report. But there have been economic positives regionally, including for farming and tourism, and in lower energy demand.

The IPCC highlights the impact on cities, now home to more than half the global population. Urban areas are increasingly being hit by heat, floods and storms affecting energy and transport, and aggravating air pollution.

The 2030s and 2040s will bring an unavoidable rise in hazards for people worldwide because there is already 1.5°C of warming baked in by our past greenhouse gas emissions. By mid-century, around a billion people will be at risk of coastal impacts such as flooding, including those in small island states, some of which face an "existential threat" later this century. If the world warms by 2°C, that will endanger food security, leading to increased malnutrition in some regions.

It isn't only humans bearing the brunt: climate change is thought to be responsible for at least two species' extinctions. If global average temperatures rise by 1.5°C, up to 14 per cent of species on land will be likely to face a very high risk of extinction in future. At 3°C, the figure is up to 29 per cent.

However, Adams cautions against being fatalistic in the face of dire projections, because they hinge on how much societies cut their emissions and how much they adapt. "Yes, things are bad. But actually, the future depends on us, not the climate," she says. The report finds that holding warming to 1.5°C "substantially" cuts the losses and damages from climate change, but "cannot eliminate them all".

Attempts to adapt to a warming world, such as building flood defences and planting different varieties of crops, have made progress since the last assessment in 2014. But they fall far short of what is needed, they are uneven globally and there is growing evidence that adaptation can have negative side effects, such as sea defences causing knock-on erosion along coasts. "Most observed adaptation is fragmented, small in scale, incremental", says the report.

Any further delay in action will miss a brief window of opportunity to secure a liveable future for all.

The report was published on the fifth day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and one of its authors says the war risks derailing focus and action on climate change. "If we're going back into a world of a cold war, thinking about climate change is something which we then don't do with the urgency with which we need," says Daniela Schmidt at the University of Bristol, UK.

On 27 February, during final approval of the report, which governments sign off line by line, the head of the Russian delegation reportedly told colleagues that "this [war] is not the wish of all the Russian people and the Russian people were not asked". The Ukrainian delegation asked colleagues to continue and expressed how upset they were the war "will detract from the importance" of the report, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.

The assessment, part of the sixth round of reports by the IPCC since the first in 1990, closes with an urgent message: "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."

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