Photo credit: Alisa Singer – Environmental Graphiti Project

Early in March, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report on the climate crisis, entitled “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.”

For those who are not completely familiar, the IPCC was created by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988 with the specific purpose of providing global policymakers with regular scientific assessments on climate change and its implications and future risks, along with future-looking adaptation and mitigation options.  You can find a wealth of information related to IPCC reports and activities here.

It’s notable that the IPCC does not conduct its own research but has a process for synthesizing the state of knowledge on climate change – so its reports are objective and transparent, and highly relevant for policymakers. 

It’s fascinating to look back at the UN General Assembly document from 1988 – specifically the language at the time – endorsing the creation of the IPCC to “provide internationally coordinated scientific assessments of the magnitude, timing and potential environmental and socio-economic impact of climate change and realistic response strategies.”  The overall frame called for the “Protection of global climate for present and future generations of mankind,” citing concepts that “changes in climate have an impact on development,” “climate change affects humanity as a whole and should be confronted with a global framework,” and “necessary and timely action should be taken to deal with climate change.”

The original document also urged governments, NGOs and scientific institutions to “treat climate change as a priority issue” while calling for collaboration in multiple ways to “prevent detrimental effects on climate and activities which affect the ecological balance.” It also called for possible response strategies “to delay, limit, or mitigate the impact of adverse climate change.” 

Notably, these and other statements in the document indicate the same concerns that we have today, for which we continue to try and generate widespread action.

And while fascinating to get an insight into the concerns of individuals at the time, it’s also more than a little frustrating, because while the need for the IPCC is so clear, the world is still falling fall far short on the action front 34 years later. 

It’s hard not to look at the original document and wonder just how much better off the world would be today had leaders been able to marshal the necessary coordinated global action on climate at the time. 

Synthesizing the current report

The most IPCC report is another crystal clear wake-up call on the urgent need for global action to reduce climate-impacting greenhouse gas emissions.  The Summary version lays out observed and projected impacts and risks, adaptation measures and enabling conditions, and climate resilient development.

Let’s explore some of the highlights.

The report begins by pointing out the interdependence of climate, ecosystems and biodiversity, and human societies – noting that the interactions of these systems are “the basis of emerging risks from climate change, economic degradation and biodiversity loss.”  As such, these interactions are also critical opportunities for transitioning to a state of increased resilience and reduced risk.

Below are several of the key bullets regarding the observed and projected impacts form climate change, straight from the report, that jumped out to me: 

  • 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. 
  • 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. 

All of the above observations were assigned a high confidence level, and unfortunately, they seem pretty obvious to all of us today.  We have all seen the increase in extreme weather events and the associated destruction, and we’ve seen the consequences for vulnerable populations.  The last point regarding the “irreversible” impact is particularly troubling, and like many items in the report is a clear signal for urgent action to mitigate climate change.   

The authors showed the linkage to climate and water, noting with high confidence that climate change has caused “substantial damages, and increasingly irreversible losses, in terrestrial, freshwater and coastal and open ocean marine systems,” and that the extent and magnitude of these impacts are greater than those in prior estimates.

Further, the authors noted (again with high confidence) that climate change and associated extreme events “have reduced food and water security, hindering efforts to meet Sustainable Development Goals.”   

So the linkage between climate, water security, and food security is clear.  Without fixing climate, we will severely degrade our ability to feed 9.6 billion global citizens by 2050.  And now, more than two years into the Decade of Action, and with rising food insecurity around the world, we simply can’t afford further degradation of food security and water security levels. 

Not surprisingly, climate change is affecting our health as well.  The authors stated (with very high confidence) that climate change has “adversely affected physical health of people globally and mental health of people in the assessed regions.”   In addition, “climate change is contributing to humanitarian crises where climate hazards interact with high vulnerability” — thus driving displacement.  And as we know, mass displacement in turn creates strain in other regions, threatening overall security.

In terms of vulnerability, the authors noted with high confidence that:

  • Approximately 3.3 to 3.6 billion people live in contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change.
  • A high proportion of species is vulnerable to climate change.
  • Human and ecosystem vulnerability are interdependent.
  • Current unsustainable development patterns are increasing exposure of ecosystems and people to climate hazards

They added that since the last Assessment, there is “increasing evidence that degradation and destruction of ecosystems by humans increases the vulnerability of people.”

In addition, unsustainable land use and unsustainable resource use, along with deforestation, biodiversity loss and pollution, have a detrimental effect on the ability of ecosystems to adapt to climate change.    

Further, the authors noted that “future vulnerability of ecosystems will be strongly influenced by the past, present and future development of human society,” and that “regions and people with considerable development constraints have high vulnerability to climate hazards.”  So our actions matter, we need to think more about how to reduce negative impacts to vulnerable regions, and we should be building sustainability and regenerative themes into development work.

Climate and risk

In terms of near-term risks, the authors stated with very high confidence that global warming reaching 1.5°C would cause “unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards and present multiple risks to ecosystems and humans.”  Conversely, near-term actions that limit global warming to the 1.5°C level would “substantially reduce projected losses and damages related to climate change in human systems and ecosystems.” 

So when it comes to global temperature, less is definitely better, and every fractional amount matters. 

In terms of mid- to long-term risks, the authors noted that:

  • Beyond 2040, and depending on the level of global warming, climate change will lead to numerous risks to natural and human systems. 
  • 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. 

Specific to water and food, the authors noted with high confidence that “risks in physical water availability and water-related hazards will continue to increase by the mid-to long-term in all assessed regions,” adding that greater risk occurs at higher levels of warming. 

Further, “climate change will increasingly put pressure on food production and access, especially in vulnerable regions,” thus weakening food security and nutrition levels.    

Regarding health, the authors noted with high confidence that “climate change and related extreme events will significantly increase ill health and premature deaths from the near- to long-term.”

Climate change risks to cities and critical infrastructure will rise rapidly in the mid- and long-term with increased global warming, especially in vulnerable regions, and displacement will increase. 

So again, if we want to meet the provide healthy food for the global population by 2050 while operating within planetary boundaries, we must rein in global warming.

Cascading risks

Beyond all of the concerning points above, the authors also discussed the idea of cascading risks, noting with high confidence that:

  • 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.

Adding themes like “cascading risks” and “compounding” to an already concerning situation really raises alarm bells in my mind.  Of great concern here is the idea that these cascading risks trigger tipping points in sensitive ecosystems (ex. permafrost thawing) which unleash a new level of harmful emissions. 

Also of great concern are the impacts of temporary overshoot.  The authors noted that if global warming exceeds the 1.5°C mark, then “many human and natural systems will face severe risks, compared to remaining below 1.5°C.”  Further, they stated that “depending on the magnitude and duration of overshoot, some impacts will cause release of additional greenhouse gases and some will be irreversible, even if global warming is reduced.   

It is also important to note that there are risks associated with well-intentioned efforts to reduce the risk of climate change – an example being afforestation of naturally unforested land.  So while we take various actions to improve the Earth’s natural ability to reduce emissions, we need to ensure that those actions are sound.   

Adapting to climate change

Finally, the authors noted that some progress in adaptation planning and implementation has been observed in all sectors and regions – but gaps remain.  Significantly, they pointed out that many initiatives prioritized immediate and near-term climate risk reduction – which reduces the opportunity for transformational adaptation.

In other words, when addressing climate and SDG challenges, we must guard against incremental approaches and think and act with the intention of driving transformational change.  We no longer have time for incremental action.

Further, and not surprisingly, we have feasible and effective adaptation options, but their effectiveness decreases with increasing warming,  And, significantly, the authors noted that “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.”

It’s also important to realize that there are limits to adaptation.  The authors noted with high confidence that “hard limits to adaptation have been reached in some ecosystems,’’ and that “with increasing global warming, losses and damages will increase and additional human and natural systems will reach adaptation limits.

Again, alarm bells should be sounding here.  We are already bumping up against ecological limits, and we will reach points where we can no longer take adaptive actions to fix what we lose.

Last, the authors signaled the need for urgency, noting that “evidence of observed impacts, projected risks, levels and trends in vulnerability, and adaptation limits, demonstrate that worldwide climate resilient development action is more urgent than previously assessed” in the last Assessment.

Another alarm bell:  urgent action needed.

And regarding how to proceed, the authors noted that “climate resilient development is enabled when governments, civil society, and the private sector make inclusive development choices that prioritize risk reduction, equity, and social justice, and when decision-making processes, finance and actions are integrated across governance levels, sectors, and timeframes.”

Linking art and action

Last, I noted at the beginning of the IPCC’s Summary report that the front cover artwork was created by Alisa Singer, an artist who developed the Environmental Graphiti project, which creates art derived from scientific data as a powerful method of communicating the science behind climate change to inspire urgent action.  As noted on the website, the Environmental Graphiti project is comprised of more than 75 digital paintings, each of which is derived from “a chart graph, map, word or number relating to key facts or data about climate change.”   

It’s a brilliant concept, and worth checking out.  Singer’s project serves as a wonderful reminder that each of us has a special skill set that can be brought to the climate crisis.  We can all contribute in our own unique way.  And as IPCC report shows, we must.

The title caption for Singer’s cover piece on the current IPCC Summary report is: “A Borrowed Planet – Inherited from our ancestors.  On loan from our children.”

These are powerful words to go with a powerful set of concepts from this most recent IPCC report. 

And we absolutely must heed them, as the work of the IPCC makes very clear.   

Yet as the Global Footprint Network so effectively notes, we are far overshooting our planet’s ecological boundaries at the expense of future generations.

Drawing on Alisa Singer’s framing, we were fortunate to be given our planet by those before us, and now we have the awesome responsibility of leaving a healthy, habitable planet for our children. 

Whatever our skill sets or motivations might be, we need to harness them, leading urgent, meaningful action for a healthier planet today.

Report after high-level report gives the same message:  we must act aggressively now to create more sustainable systems and rein in emissions in order to limit global warming to the 1.5C threshold. 

The IPCC’s most recent report is another dire wake-up call. 

The question for all of us:  will this be the one to lead us to act?