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'Clobbered by Climate Change': IPCC Report Warns of Failure to Adapt to Global Warming

Humanity's ability to deal with climate change will become more difficult unless we rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, scientists say.

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Extreme weather events, like flooding, will affect more people as the planet warms.
Patrick Hamilton/Getty

Human-induced climate change is being felt the world over, posing an increasing threat to human health and wellbeing, ecosystems, societies and business. The impacts are uneven, disproportionately affecting those least able to deal with them, and they're outpacing our ability to adapt, according to a major scientific report released by the United Nations' chief climate science organization on Monday.

"I have seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this," said António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations during a press conference that introduced the report. "Today's IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership."

"This report reveals all people on the planet are getting clobbered by climate change."

Titled "Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability," the report was approved by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on Feb. 27. A previous report on the science of climate change, released in August, stated unequivocally that humans have warmed the planet and that the world is already beginning to feel irreversible impacts.

The latest report, conducted by the IPCC's Working Group II, draws from over 34,000 references, providing a comprehensive picture of the interconnectedness of the Earth's climate system, human society and the natural world. 

It focuses on the impacts climate change has already had, highlighting the risks to biodiversity, human health and access to land and water, while demonstrating that social issues such as inequality, injustice, pollution and habitat destruction will intensify such risks, particularly for the poor and vulnerable.

Humanity can lessen these risks and adapt to a warming world, and in many places is already doing so, but we need to move faster.  

"When we look at the evidence, it's increasingly clear that the pace of adaptation across the globe is not enough to keep up with the pace of climate change," said Mark Howden, a climate scientist at Australian National University and vice chair of the IPCC's Working Group II.

Impacts of climate change

Every region of the world is feeling the impacts of climate change in some way. 

Extreme weather events are becoming more common and more intense, leading to an array of damages to both nature and people. These impacts are disproportionately felt by vulnerable populations, like those on small islands, which are seeing higher temperatures and increasing frequency of tropical cyclones, storm surges and sea-level rise. 

In places like Africa, which has contributed the least to global greenhouse gas emissions, losses and damages are already being felt. The report outlines how climate change is affecting biodiversity, agricultural productivity and water availability. 

There is also increasing recognition of the way climate change is affecting mental health. The report shows that increasing heat and trauma from weather, extreme climate events and loss of livelihoods and culture is having detrimental effects across the world. These effects are expected to increase as the world gets warmer.

"Rapid transformations are needed to ensure that we develop in a way that is climate resilient and sustainable," said Kathryn Bowen, a professor of environment, climate and global health at the University of Melbourne, Australia. 

"For the health sector, this means universal access to primary health care, including mental health care."

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Insufficient rainfall in the Horn of Africa has decimated crops and livestock, leaving millions hungry.

Yasuyoshi Chiba/Getty

How to adapt to a warming world

The core message in the latest report remains the same: There must be swift and decisive action taken to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the chief driver of warming temperatures on Earth. Failure to do so will inevitably lead to an inability to adapt.

The world is undeniably getting hotter. The Working Group I report from August suggests that it's almost 50-50 on whether we will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming before 2050, even if we are to dramatically reduce emissions. Such increases will constrain the ways in which we may be able to adapt in the future and will continue to widen the gap between rich and poor.  

The new report explains emissions reduction must be taken concurrently with instituting better adaptation mechanisms to lessen the risks associated with climate change we are certain to see in the coming decades.

"What we need is a new generation of clear-eyed, forward-thinking, ambitious, sophisticated fit-for-purpose adaptation," said Lauren Rickards, a social scientist at RMIT University in Melbourne and lead author on the Australian/New Zealand chapter of the report. Rickards notes that this type of adaptation is required from every "community, organization, sector and group."

There is room for optimism, however. 

"We've seen immense amounts of progress," said Johanna Nalau, a climate adaptation scientist at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, and lead author on the report's Small Islands chapter. "We have 170 countries that have started integrating adaptation into their planning process."

Rather than being reactive to extreme weather events like wildfires and floods after they occur, governments and communities should look to long-term planning, such as as that outlined by the US Environmental Protection Agency in its Climate Resilience toolkit, to ensure a more robust response before climate disasters strike. 

And it's not just purely scientific knowledge that aids adaptation. The report outlines the power of learning from indigenous and local knowledge, integrating and elevating the voices of marginalized groups and combining that with social change to lessen climate change risks. 

End of the cycle

The IPCC was established by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization in 1988 to understand the drivers and impacts of climate change. It consists of thousands of experts who review and assess the scientific, social and economic aspects of the climate crisis by reviewing research and studies into climate change. Its last major assessment report, AR5, was published in 2014. 

New reports are completed about every six to seven years. The current cycle for the Sixth Assessment Report, or AR6, is due to be completed later this year.

In this cycle, the IPCC has published three special reports, examining different areas of the climate crisis. The first, published in 2018, examined how to meet a global warming target of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Two later reports, published in 2019, examined how climate change is affecting the land, the oceans and the cryosphere (the frozen parts of Earth).

The report issued by Working Group I last August, "Climate Change: The Physical Science Basis," was described as a "reality check" and outlined how climate change is increasing the incidence of extreme weather events like heat waves, droughts and floods. 

The next IPCC report is being considered by Working Group III and focuses on ways to mitigate climate change. It is expected to be released in April. A final synthesis report, which comprises the analysis of all three working groups and three special reports, will be published in September, compiling all the research from the AR6 cycle.

Publication will occur just before the major climate change conference, COP27, takes place in Egypt.