Since 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed and tasked with advancing knowledge of humanity’s impact on the natural environment. Beginning in 1990, they have issued multiple reports on the natural, political, and economic impacts Climate Change will have, as well as possible options for mitigation and adaptation. On Feb. 27th, the IPCC released the second part of its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) – “Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability” – and the outlook isn’t good!
The AR6 consists of three different Reports conducted by three IPCC Working Groups (WG), as with previous reports. Whereas WGI is responsible for assessing the scientific basis of climate change, WGII is tasked with assessing the vulnerability of socio-economic and natural systems and options for adapting to it. WGIII focuses on climate change mitigation, assessing methods for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
In addition to the Full Report, the IPCC has released several summary documents that allow for faster (and easier) access to all the information provided. These include the Summary for Policymakers, Fact Sheets, a Technical Summary, a Global to Regional Atlas, an Overarching Frequently Asked Questions, and access to individual Chapters.
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The first WGI Report, “The Physical Science Basis,” was published in August 2021. The third will likely be released sometime in April, while the final Synthesis Report (SR) will follow later in 2022. Among the key findings presented in the WGII Report, the IPCC once again reached the following conclusions:
- Anthropogenic climate change has exposed ecosystems to conditions that are unprecedented over millennia, which has greatly impacted species on land and in the ocean.
- Observed responses of species to climate change have altered biodiversity and impacted ecosystem structure and resilience in most regions.
- In the equatorial and tropical regions, climate change has led to widespread population losses.
- Ecosystem change has led to the loss of specialised ecosystems and species extinction.
- The affect on ecosystems has impacted human health, livelihoods, and well-being, especially among Indigenous populations worldwide.
However, the WGII Report also indicates that since the Fifth IPCC Assessment Report (AR5) was published in 2014, a wider range of impacts has taken place that are attributable to climate change. Essentially, new knowledge has been obtained that shows how certain ecological impacts are attributable to anthropogenic forces. Among them, increases in temperature and extreme weather are having the following effects:
- Plants and animals on land and in the ocean towards the poles, to higher altitudes, or to the deeper ocean waters
- Changes in the timing of key biological events (breeding or flowering)
- An increase in the frequency and spread of diseases in wildlife, agriculture, and people
- A lengthening wildfire season and increases in the area burned
- Severe water shortages affecting roughly half the world’s population
- Increased drought conditions negatively affecting agriculture and energy production
The AR6 Report also examined how the impacts of Climate Change will be felt worldwide, with special attention given to the different geographical areas of the planet. Within these regions, the authors examine how different areas will be impacted and how these will be felt disproportionately based on income, development, locality, quality of life and health outcomes, local infrastructure, and the availability of government and emergency services.
Compared to previous Reports, the AR6 WGII Report emphasizes that proposed solutions for adapting to Climate Change need to meet a certain societal threshold. This comes down to effective and feasible solutions that conform to the principle of “climate justice.” This concept is spelled out in the Summary for Policymakers document. As it states:
“The term climate justice… generally includes three principles: distributive justice which refers to the allocation of burdens and benefits among individuals, nations, and generations; procedural justice which refers to who decides and participates in decision-making; and recognition which entails basic respect and robust engagement with and fair consideration of diverse cultures and perspectives.”
One of the key findings in the WGII Report (as cited above) is how Climate Change will have a particular impact on Indigenous peoples worldwide. This includes (but is not limited to) the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, the Indigenous peoples of Oceania, the Maori of New Zealand, Native communities across North, Central, and South America, the Innu of the Arctic Circle, and the Native inhabitants of Siberia.
Within these communities and geographic localities, the importance of hunting, fishing, and farming sustainably is a time-honored tradition that will be disrupted by local changes in the environment and global changes in weather patterns, climate cycles, and average temperature increases. As the authors indicate in the Full Report:
“Indigenous perspectives of well-being embrace physical, social, emotional and cultural domains, collectiveness and reciprocity, and more fundamentally connections between all elements across the past, present, and future generations. Changing climate conditions are expected to exacerbate many of the social, economic, and health inequalities.”
Consistent with the principle of “climate justice,” the Report also acknowledges that vulnerability to the effects of Climate Change is part of ongoing efforts for social justice. Poverty, inequality, and underdevelopment as we know them are the direct results of colonialism and imperialism, with many of its practices enduring to this day. This is especially true in the developing world and for Indigenous peoples in North, Central, and South America.
“There is a central role for Indigenous Peoples in climate change decision making that helps address the enduring legacy of colonization through building opportunities based on Indigenous governance regimes, cultural practices to care for land and water, and intergenerational perspectives,” state the authors. Last, but not least, the Full Report emphasizes how the commitment of Indigenous Peoples to the well-being of the community and sustainable living are intrinsic to adaptation and resiliency.
By recognizing their commitment to the land, continuous habitation, and land rights, the Full Report acknowledges Indigenous Peoples worldwide as partners in climate justice:
“Actions and solutions that safeguard nature are relatively inexpensive in many parts of the world because they do not rely on complex machinery or on the development of extensive infrastructure. However, to realize potential benefits and avoid harm, it is essential that these solutions are deployed in the right places and with the right approaches for that area, guided by local and indigenous knowledge, scientific understanding and practical expertise. Knowledge is the key.”
The question of where these impacts are felt by human beings is also a subject of particular interest. In particular, the authors explain how the impacts of Climate Change are being felt in urban environments, where most human beings live today. According to the UN, urban populations worldwide began to exceed rural populations by 2007. As of 2018, urban populations account for 55.3% (4.2 billion) of the global population of 7.6 billion.
According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), the global population is projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050. Roughly 68% of these people will live in cities, increasing the global urban population by 2.5 billion. Then, it is no surprise why the Report emphasizes how increases in average global temperatures (and the resulting environmental impacts) will fall especially hard on these centers.
While urban communities are concentrated in relatively small geographic areas, their stress on the surrounding countryside extends far beyond the city limits. Additionally, many of the associated impacts are felt more severely in urban areas, where populations are highly concentrated and dependent on services and resources that come from around the world and the supply chains, transport networks, and other infrastructure critical to supporting them.
These include higher risks of heat stress, reduced air quality (due to wildfire in the surrounding countryside), lack of water, food shortages, and health impacts caused by urban air pollution. Major cities worldwide are already feeling the effects of record highs in the summer and the “heat domes,” wildfires, and prolonged drought that come with this. These are followed by extreme weather events in the winter, like hurricanes, flooding, and rising sea levels.
Adaptation & Mitigation
According to the AR5 Report, between 14% to 37% of Earth’s population will be exposed to severe heat waves at least once every five years (depending on the level of warming). As temperatures increase, so do the number of people treated for heat-stroke, illness, injuries, malnutrition, and even death. It is also taking an economic toll as people are forced to spend more time indoors because working outdoors can be hazardous to health.
As with previous reports, the AR6 addresses the potential impacts of Climate Change based on different Global Warming Levels (GWLs) or “pathways.” These come down to our ability to reduce anthropogenic carbon emissions by 2050, which will have different outcomes regarding average temperature increases and the following impacts. The desired pathway is based on a reduction of about 45% by 2030 (from 2010 levels), reaching net-zero around 2050.
If this is accomplished, the average temperature increase will be limited to a GWL of 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) above pre-industrial levels, whereas other pathways will result in an increase of 2 °C (3.6 °F) or more. The risks are projected for the near-term (2021-2040), the mid (2041-2060), and long term (2081-2100) and at different global warming levels for pathways that exceed an average increase of 1.5 °C worldwide in the coming decades.
But as they note, keeping greenhouse gas emissions below the targeted threshold – where warming would be kept below an average of 1.6 °C (2.9 °F) by 2100 – would still result in significant impacts:
“[S]ome 8% of today’s farmland is projected to become climatically unsuitable by 2100. Under the same conditions, fisher people in Africa’s tropical regions are projected to lose between 3 to 41% of their fisheries’ yield by the end of the century due to local extinctions of marine fish. Fisheries provide the main source of protein for about one-third of people living in Africa. It supports the livelihoods of 12.3 million people. Declining fish harvests could leave millions of people vulnerable to malnutrition.”
Another major impact is the increase in frequency and severity of extreme weather events, such as heavy rains and extreme flooding. These are having the effect of triggering local mass die-offs and local extinctions as species are pushed far beyond the temperature limits they can tolerate. Examples include reef-building warm-water corals that are declining everywhere, severely impacting aquatic wildlife worldwide.
Of course, the authors also note that these risk increase steeply with rises in global temperature. If average temperatures increases reach a level of 2 °C by 2100, up to 18% of all species on land will be at high risk of going extinct. According to the Report, reaching a GWL of 4 °C (7.2 °F) (the highest emission pathway) will result in far more severe impacts:
“If the world warms up to 4 °C, every second plant or animal species that we know of will be threatened. The extinction risk is especially high for cold-loving species living in the high mountains or in polar regions, where climate change impacts are unfolding at global maximum speed and extent.
“[M]ass mortalities and extinctions are expected that will irreversibly alter globally important areas, including those that host exceptionally rich biodiversity such as tropical coral reefs and cold-water kelp forests and the world’s rainforests. Even at lower levels of warming of 2°C or less, polar fauna (including fish, penguins, seals, and polar bears), tropical coral reefs and mangroves will be under serious threat.”
In essence, the calls for adaptation and mitigation are all about preparing for all possible outcomes but working to achieve the least harmful outcome. This is a common feature of the IPCC Reports: the unmitigated assertion that things will get worse before they get better.
Resilience & Restoration
Another key concept explored by AR6 and all previous Reports is “climate resilience,” which comes down to two combined sets of actions. These include a wide range of actions that drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and a similarly wide range of actions that transform the way we live our lives. In short, the authors state that we cannot merely curb our emissions. We also need to make long-term changes that allow us to live sustainably with nature:
“That is the reason why sustainable development in a climate context includes for example clean energy generation, circular economies, healthy diets from sustainable farming, appropriate urban planning and transport, universal health coverage and social protection, training and education as well as water and energy access for everyone to help to reduce poverty.”
This raises another issue acknowledged by the Report: how strategies for Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) can work in tandem with Carbon Capture (CC) and emission reductions. “From a risk perspective, emission reductions and carbon removal can both reduce the greenhouse gas forcing and thus climate-related hazards while adaptation and sustainable development reduce exposure and vulnerability to those hazards,” they state.
However, the outlook and practices of the IPCC mean that they perceive CDR and removal strategies differently than climate restoration advocates. A good example is the Foundation for Climate Restoration, a global non-profit committed to education, outreach, and partnerships between the public and private sectors. They are partnered with the UN’s Envoy on Youth and regularly participate in international events like the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP).
According to F4CR CEO Rick Wayman, the IPCC is committed to examining all peer-reviewed science on Climate Change and presenting consistent solutions. At present, there is a lack of peer-reviewed studies as far as CDR is concerned, which is limiting for those advocating climate restoration. And while the IPCC Reports do acknowledge CDR as a necessary strategy, they treat the concept somewhat differently than climate restoration advocates:
“They don’t talk about removing greenhouse gases in terms of climate restoration. They don’t use that language. They basically use it to say that carbon dioxide removal is going to play some role in pretty much any scenario you look at to keep us at 1.5 degrees of warmth.
“They also go into a lot of ‘what about scenario b, where we overshoot to 2.2 degrees and have to accelreate our carbon dioxide removal to get back down to 1.5. But they are looking at Gigaton-scale CDR. We are as well, we’re just looking at it on a faster timescale and a greater quantity.”
Removal is also mentioned throughout the Report to refer to natural removal mechanisms – i.e., removal by plant species, sequestering in the Earth’s oceans, etc. However, no particularly detailed strategies are presented in the Report, with the possible exception of tree planting and the impacts thereof. The role of carbon dioxide removal techniques is likely to become clearer with the release of the WGIII Report.
As mentioned earlier, the focus of WGIII includes “methods for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.”
Solutions and “Societal Acceptance”
The AR6 WGII Report also recognizes that the scale and scope of actions to reduce climate risks (aka. adaptations) have increased since the previous Report. These include efforts mounted by individuals, households, communities, businesses, religious groups, and social movements worldwide that are adapting to climate change already. However, the WGII Report also identifies large gaps in the ongoing efforts and adaptations to cope with even the current levels of global warming.
The Report also highlights that the effectiveness of available adaptation options decreases with every increment of warming. Successful adaptation requires that urgent, more ambitious, and accelerated actions be taken. At the same time, they emphasize that rapid and deep cuts need to be made in greenhouse gas emissions. The quicker and further emissions fall, the more scope nature and human beings will have to adapt.
Another interesting focus of the WGII Report is the issue of “societal acceptance.” To conserve, restore, and safeguard nature to meet the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals, fundamental changes need to be made in society. To do this, populations worldwide need to be shown how these changes can be made in ways that are economically beneficial in the meantime.
Hence, special attention is given to inclusive, equitable solutions and ensure “just development” that doesn’t leave anyone behind. In other words, the WGII Report seeks to debunk the notion that it’s either “the planet or the economy.” As Wayman put it:
“I think in terms of public opinion, one of the interesting things in this Worlkdin Group II Report is that they’re talking about ‘societal acceptance’ is a big part of any kind of remediation effort that is made. Even if it’s aforestation (creating new forests) in order to absorb some carbon and maybe mitigate some other issues – help us adapt to things that climate change is bringing about – societal acceptance is a really important thing.
“There are different communities and different people that need to be convinced that a) climate change is real, and b) changing their behavior is necessary [and] doesn’t necessarily mean a worse quality of life. But also that whatever solutions you’re talking about are going to benefit the community and be a net positive.”
By choosing to stress societal acceptance of Climate Change and adaptation/mitigation measures, says Wayman, the authors of the WGII Report have delved into the social sciences in addition to hard science. This is in keeping with the AR6’s advocacy for adaptation solutions that are “effective, feasible, and conform to principles of justice.”
Crisis and Opportunity
The release of the WGII Report has coincided with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has arguably overshadowed the Report and its findings. Nevertheless, there are those in the scientific and journalistic community who have noticed how this conflict highlights how dependence on foreign petroleum and Climate Change are interrelated and could offer a common solution. As Wayman explained:
“There’s a lot of talk in the U.S. in particular. We’ve got to get out of Russian gas, we’ve got to stop fuelling the war through the fossil fuel industry of Russia. There are two camps, two proposed solutions to that. One is let’s speed up our transition from sustainable transportation, to renewable energy. The other is the path of least resistance: increase our domestic oil production.
“Both of these ideas share the goal of not funding Russia’s military ventures. But the thinking behind it is very different. In a way, given the situation, this is an opportunity for the United States and many countries around the world to speed up their sustainability pursuits. Because it shows that no only is burning fossil fuel bad for the environment, it can also be used for very negative, unintended consequences – the money that’s behind it.”
This is similar to how the COVID-19 pandemic and the prospect for economic recovery have been seized upon by progressive legislatures and environmentalists. In the U.S., the Biden Administration’s “Build Back Better Act” contained several elements similar to the “Green New Deal.” At their core, both bills are infrastructure renewal plans that call for the development of clean energy and environmentally-friendly alternatives.
For many other countries, the prospect of rebuilding their economies after two years of lockdowns, mask mandates, vaccination rollouts, and restrictions presents an opportunity to rebuild our global economy around a greener, more sustainable model. These efforts are encouraging in that they show how current crises are being interpreted in terms of the greatest existential threat facing humanity: the impacts Climate Change will have on our environment and the systems we rely on for our livelihood and survival.
The IPCC will reveal more about its proposed solutions with the release of the WGIII Report, which is expected sometime in the next month. In the meantime, the message of the AR6 is clear and consistent with previous Reports. The situation is bad and destined to get worse unless we act now. Or as the authors summarize:
“The extent and magnitude of climate change impacts are larger than estimated in previous assessments. They are causing severe and widespread disruption in nature and in society; reducing our ability to grow nutritious food or provide enough clean drinking water, thus affecting people’s health and well-being and damaging livelihoods. In summary, the impacts of climate change are affecting billions of people in many different ways.”
Further Reading: IPCC