The IPCC Working Group II recently finalized the second part of their sixth assessment report on climate change, looking at the impacts of climate change at global and regional levels, as well as the vulnerabilities and capacities of the natural world and human societies to adapt to climate change. If I had to summarize the article in one sentence it would be: things are not looking so great.
What is the IPCC?
The IPCC, or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change. This group was created in 1988 and their objective is to provide governments scientific information that they can use to create climate policy. There are currently 195 members around the world, and these experts volunteer their time to assess the thousands of papers published annually to provide an overview on climate change, its drivers, impacts, and the risks we may face in the future. This is how assessment reports like this one are created. The IPCC does not conduct the research, however, it reviews the research that has been done and determines where more research may be needed in the future.
The IPCC is broken up into three working groups as well as a task force. Each working group focuses on a different area of climate change, with Working Group I focusing on The Physical Science Basis of Climate Change, Working Group II focusing on Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, and Working Group III on Mitigation of Climate Change. The Task Force's purpose is to focus on the methods currently used to calculate and report on greenhouse gas emissions and removal, and to develop the best methods possible. The assessment we are looking at today is from Working Group II, which is why it focuses on the impacts of climate change.
What are the Takeaways?
If you are looking for detailed information, I highly recommend that you read the Summary for Policymakers, as it is only 35 pages and provides a very digestible but very detailed rundown of the full report. I'm going to be focusing on the main messages that were being delivered so that you can get the information in 5-10 minutes rather than reading the full breakdown. If you don't want to read anything, I highly recommend that you watch this video from Simon Clark (and his other videos while you're at it) as he does a wonderful job of explaining the most important details found in the report.
Generally speaking, this report is letting us know that things are worse than we had anticipated that they would be and that this trend is likely to continue. It is a bit difficult to give a quick overview, so I'm going to break it down the same way that the report did. I'm not going to be providing thoughts or opinions until the end, so these are just going to be the factual highlights from the report. Simon Clark said it best: "In a sentence: climate change is here already, it's driving species to extinction, and that's very bad news for humans".
To focus on the risks, we need to get a snapshot of the current situation. Climate change has already caused dangerous and widespread disruption for nature, with half of the living organisms already moving towards higher grounds or the poles. Currently, 3.3-3.6 billion people are vulnerable to climate change, which breaks down to 4/10 people. Every small increase in warming will have a negative impact, and that scale is more exponential than it is linear. As we continue to warm, these risks will only become more severe and will impact more and more people.
Sea level rise is the impact that people are most aware of since it is so visual and discussed so frequently, and this risk is only going to become more dangerous as warming continues. This report estimates that about 1 billion more people will be at risk from coastal climate hazards over the next few decades. If temperatures rise to 1.7-1.8C above 1850s level, which is almost guaranteed at this point, about half of the population would be exposed to life-threatening conditions due to heat and humidity. Diseases (ie. malaria and mosquito-borne illnesses) will start to spread more quickly. There will be an increase in mental health issues, including but not limited to stress and trauma related to extreme weather events and the impact those will have on livelihoods as well as culture.
At 1.5C of warming (the "goal", remember?) 14% of species will be at high risk of extinction. That number doubles at 3C. The "Vulnerable Biodiversity Hotspots", or areas that contain many species already at a high risk of extinction, double at 2C, and increase tenfold at 3C. This is essentially a way of illustrating that more and more ecosystems will be at risk if warming continues. At that 1.5C mark, many of the risks that human and natural systems experience could be irreversible.
Climate Change does not impact all areas equally. More vulnerable areas will have to adapt more quickly, as 15 times more people died from floods in these areas than in non-vulnerable areas from 2010-2020. These areas also tend to be the areas that are emitting the least and can do the least to mitigate the problem. These risks that we were discussing are likely to occur sooner than previously thought, meaning that rapid adaptation is not only smart, but necessary.
This is a quick breakdown of the risks we face from climate change. I just wanted to run through them to provide a picture of where we are and where we are headed. There are more risks and impacts from climate change, but these are the highlights.
Okay, you got me, I'm scared. But they talked about adaptation too, right?
Ah, yes, you remembered! Working Group II's report does also highlight the actions and adaptations required moving forward, and the impacts that those would have. Similar to the previous section, I'm just going to be giving a brief rundown of the information, and I'll be providing my thoughts later on.
I shouldn't even have to mention this part, but aggressive and decisive action is required to combat climate change. Risks are increasing, and we need to adapt quickly to handle these risks. The first adaptation is clear, and that is making deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as we possibly can. This is the most important thing that we can do, as no other adaptations alone will have enough of an impact to solve the problem. The severity of this issue was caused by rapid emissions of greenhouse gases, and reducing those emissions moving forward is the only way to not only stall the increase in severity but to potentially backpedal from where we currently are. Rebuilding ecosystems or developing new technologies will be helpful, but they will merely scratch the surface if we do not aggressively reduce our emissions.
The main adaptation focused on in this report, outside of reducing emissions, is strengthening nature. This is the key to a livable future according to Working Group II's report. As ecosystems have been lost, our communities have become more vulnerable to climate impacts, and healthy ecosystems have the potential to reduce climate risks and improve people's lives. Healthy ecosystems are more resilient to climate change and they provide critical services such as food and clean water. By restoring degraded ecosystems and conserving anywhere from 30-50% of Earth's land, freshwater, and ocean habitats, human society will be able to benefit from the Earth's ability to sequester and store carbon, which will allow us to progress towards sustainable development. However, Earth's systems can only store so much carbon, so unless we reduce our emissions Earth's systems will be pushed to their limit once again, that limit would simply be slightly higher.
Strengthening our ecosystems and reducing our emissions are the two things that will have the greatest impact on climate change, according to the IPCC. Action needs to be taken on these two fronts as soon as possible to ensure that there is enough time for these adaptations to have an impact.
My Reactions and Thoughts
There are obviously many more risks, and many more potential solutions and adaptations, but if you want to learn about those I highly recommend that you go read the full report or take a look at the figures from the report. I wanted to give a brief overview of what the future holds, as well as the main thing that we can do to prevent or mitigate this.
When I first read the report, my initial reaction was not fear, it was anger and frustration. Don't get me wrong, this report is terrifying and I definitely am scared for the future, but I am frustrated and angry that it has gotten to this point. I was in high school when I realized the severity of climate change, and I realized that something had to be done if we were going to preserve our future. I started high school in the fall of 2012 - 10 years ago. I cannot believe how little has been done in the past 10 years. Yes, we have more electric cars and solar panels and wind turbines and all that nice stuff, but you know what we don't have? Less fossil fuel usage. Decreased subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. We haven't even stopped fracking. So yes, progress has been made, that is true. However, considering the severity of the issue and the literal global impact that it will have, that progress has not been enough. All of the "solutions" that have been pursued are the ones that look good in the media, not the ones that will actually have the greatest impact. The people that have the power to make the decisions necessary have been choosing not to, and they are quite literally stealing our future by doing so.
For those that want President Biden to allow drilling on US soil, or that want him to expand the Keystone Pipeline, I ask you to read the full report. If you are young, or have children, or grandchildren, and you read this report and still feel the same way, I truly would not understand that. I would rather pay high gas prices to fill up a car than suffocate our future and shave years off of the lives we can live. People always say that electric and renewables are the future, but they have been saying that for decades now. That sentiment is just a cop-out. Those systems aren't in place currently because the people in power for the last two decades have made the conscious decision to not put them in place. If we continue to say that renewables are the future, we will have no future. No future that looks anything like the life we are living today anyway.
There's my rant. I knew it would happen at some point during the life of this website, so hopefully it doesn't happen too many more times. It was my true and honest reaction though. We need to be taking action, and those of us not in positions to be making the choices need to be educating others, voting for people that will make the right choices, and holding our leaders accountable for their actions. Politicians are not celebrities, they are public servants and should be acting in the best interest of the people, and they have not done so.
Should We Panic?
No. I do not want this site to turn into climate doom headquarters, since I don't think anything positive ever comes from ruling through fear. I would much rather focus on the positives and what we CAN do, rather than all the terrible things that are coming our way. This report, however, highlights just how serious the issue is. It is already taking lives around the world, and I know that personally, I don't want it to take anymore. Do not panic, do take action. Do what you can to ask those in power to do their jobs. Vote for politicians willing to take aggressive climate action, because if that doesn't happen nothing else will really matter at the end of the day.
I know that this was a very different article, and I appreciate those of you that made it to the very end. This is clearly something that I am passionate about, and I am afraid of what is to come. I know that there is a future where we are able to mitigate the risks and live on happily, but aggressive action needs to be taken to secure that future for ourselves.
To end on a positive note, the next article is going to be on The Lorax! I think we've had enough doom and gloom in the past few articles and we could use a little bit of a lift.