With more than 40% of the world’s population already exposed to the worst effects of global heating and “every region in the world” facing increased climate hazards by 2040, scientists warn that better, faster adaptation—and a lot more funding for it—is critical for a liveable future on Earth, especially for the most vulnerable.
Heat waves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, all linked to human influence: the climate crisis is a story of ever-intensifying suffering, confirmed the world’s leading scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in Summary for Policymakers released Monday.
But the report, issued as the final part of the IPCC’s sixth global climate assessment, also contains “an incredible story of making the impossible possible,” said Kaisa Kosonen, senior political advisor and head of delegation at Greenpeace International.
Threats to humanity may be bigger than ever before, “but so are our opportunities for change,” which Kosonen said will be unlocked by crafting solutions and “doing what we must”: heeding the report’s recommendations.
A summary of global climate science for policy-makers, the IPCC report is essentially “a how-to guide to defuse the climate time bomb,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. It tells officials that “regulatory and economic instruments can support deep emissions reductions and climate resilience if scaled up and applied widely.”
Climate Impacts for the Most Vulnerable
No part of the planet remains unaffected, but the consequences of global heating are most strongly felt by those least able to protect themselves—mostly in countries, regions, and communities that have done the least to bring on the climate emergency. Between 3.3 and 3.6 billion people “live in contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change,” the IPCC says. The greatest vulnerability is seen in communities across Africa, Asia, Central and South America, small island states, and the Arctic. Within these regions, least-developed countries (LDCs) suffer the most. On a global level, Indigenous peoples, small-scale food producers, and low-income households are being hit first and hardest.
The disparity of suffering is sharp. Between 2010 and 2020, human mortality from floods, droughts, and storms was 15 times higher in highly vulnerable regions, compared to regions with very low vulnerability, say the report authors.
By 2040, defined by the IPCC as the near term, “every region in the world is projected to face further increases in climate hazards” that will increase “multiple risks to ecosystems and humans.”
Ever-increasing biodiversity loss across land, freshwater, and ocean ecosystems is predicted, along with a “decrease in food production in some regions.”
Thirst is also increasing: “roughly half of the world’s population currently experiences severe water scarcity for at least part of the year due to a combination of climatic and non-climatic drivers.”
Risk of heat-related illness and death, as well as food-borne, water-borne, and vector-borne diseases will also intensify, as will the harms associated with sea level rise, coastal flooding, and storm surge. Some of this sea level rise is already “unavoidable,” with risks for coastal ecosystems, people, and infrastructure continuing to increase beyond 2100.
Mountain ecosystems, and those who call them home, are also under threat. Glacier melt will continue to harm mountain peoples, with floods, landslides, and depleted freshwater stores leading to “severe consequences for people, infrastructure, and the economy in most mountain regions.”
The authors warns that all these climate hazards and their associated impacts will pose serious threats to mental health. Extreme heat, “trauma from extreme events”, and the “loss of livelihoods and culture” are likely to induce mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
A core message from the IPCC is that these hazards do not exist in siloes. Climate-driven food insecurity and unstable food supplies, for example, will interact with “non-climatic risk drivers” like competition for land, pandemics, and conflict. These risks will “become increasingly complex and more difficult to manage” with further warming.
There is a dangerous correlation between vulnerability and volatility, say the report authors. Both are prone to rise under socio-economic development trends like migration, growing inequality, and urbanization.
“Human vulnerability will concentrate in informal settlements and rapidly growing smaller settlements,” the report says, and high reliance on climate-sensitive livelihoods will mean increasing vulnerability in rural areas everywhere on Earth: for the ice-dependent Indigenous hunting communities in the Arctic, the pastoralists of east Africa, and the artisanal fishing communities of West Africa, South America, and Asia.
And big cities will not escape a climate whipping, with multiple examples of lethal heat stress already on the books. The lives lost in Vancouver during the 2021 heat dome and deaths in Islamabad when heat waves, then devastating floods hit the Indian Subcontinent last year are only the most recent tragedies added to this ledger.
“Urban infrastructure, including transportation, water, sanitation, and energy systems have been compromised by extreme and slow-onset events, with resulting economic losses, disruptions of services, and negative impacts to well-being,” the IPCC says. These urban climate impacts are “concentrated amongst the economically and socially marginalized,” like when schizophrenia tripled the risk of death during the heat dome in Western Canada.
Adaptation: Slow and Imperilled
Climate mitigation is an imperative, with 1.5°C as the “survival target” for poor countries, poor communities, and much of the natural world. But the need to adapt to climate impacts is also urgent.
Adaptation planning and implementation is happening “across all sectors and regions” and “growing public and political awareness of climate impacts and risks has resulted in at least 170 countries and many cities including adaptation in their climate policies and planning processes,” the IPCC says.
And communities that acted have benefitted. Strategies like cultivar improvements, soil moisture conservation, community-based adaptation, and the use of agroecological principles have been documented to reduce climate risks in their specific contexts and regions. “Ecosystem-based adaptation approaches such as urban greening, restoration of wetlands, and upstream forest ecosystems have been effective in reducing flood risks and urban heat,” the report states.
Strengthening public health programs and systems, improving access to mental health care, investing in early warning systems and heat action plans, and supporting balanced and sustainable diets are other adaptive options that protect human health and well-being.
But “most observed adaptation responses” are fundamentally flawed, the authors warn. They have been “fragmented, incremental, sector-specific, and unequally distributed across regions.” Vulnerable and marginalized people are very likely to be outright excluded from adaptation benefits, or even worse, become collateral damage in what the IPCC describes as “maladaptation.”
“For example, seawalls effectively reduce impacts to people and assets in the short-term but can also result in lock-ins and increase exposure to climate risks in the long term, unless they are integrated into a long-term adaptive plan.”
Such “maladaptive responses can worsen existing inequities, especially for Indigenous peoples and marginalized groups, and decrease ecosystem and biodiversity resilience,” the authors warn. So, adaptation planning and implementation everywhere must become “flexible, multisectoral, inclusive, and long-term.”
Already, the IPCC warns that “some tropical, coastal, polar, and mountain systems have reached hard adaptation limits.” And “above 1.5°C of global warming, limited freshwater resources pose potential hard adaptation limits for small islands and for regions dependent on glacier and snow melt.”
The “soft limits” to adaptation include limited resources, tepid private sector and citizen engagement (the latter possibly due to low climate literacy), lack of political commitment, and a “low sense of urgency.” For developing and least developed countries, an “insufficient mobilization of finance” is a critical “soft limit” to adaptation.
Climate finance may be on an upward trend, but it still falls far short of what’s needed, for both emission reductions and climate adaptation. Current global financial flows for adaptation—from public or private sources—are insufficient and constrain implementation, “especially in developing countries.” The disconnect between the estimated costs of adaptation and allocated finance continues to widen, the authors add.
They describe a vicious circle, where adverse climate impacts can reduce the availability of financial resources by incurring losses and damages and impeding national economic growth, “further increasing financial constraints for adaptation, particularly for developing and least developed countries.
What About Loss and Damage Funding?
“We are not doing enough, and the poor and vulnerable are bearing the brunt of our collective failure to act,” Madeleine Diouf Sarr, Senegal’s top climate official who chairs the LDC group, said in a release.
“The world cannot ignore the human cost of inaction,” Sarr added, pointing to the damage recently wrought by Cyclone Freddy, which “resulted in hundreds of deaths and displaced thousands of people in Malawi, Mozambique, and Madagascar.”
Echoing the Summary for Policymakers, Sarr said that since the ability of LDCs to adapt “lessens as temperatures rise,” adequate and accessible adaptation funding is critical to ensure communities can build resilience and “future-proof” their development.
“Loss and damage is also a critical part of this story,” Sarr said. “We must get the Loss and Damage fund up and running by the end of this year so that resources can get to those in need.”
The IPCC points to the “losses and damages” incurred by nature and people due to weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. “Vulnerable communities who have historically contributed the least to current climate change are disproportionately affected,” the report states, and the authors say a lack of funding is a debilitating barrier to climate adaptation.
The report does not mention the Loss and Damage fund established by the last United Nations climate summit, COP 27, in what was seen as a historic win for the Global South. Representatives from 24 countries are now negotiating the nuts and bolts of the fund, but missed deadlines have raised fears that cash flow will be delayed, even amid relentless climate damage.
Climate Resilient Development for All
To be “climate resilient,” all development must be focused on the long-term, integrated, inclusive, and equitable, and the last two elements are vital to avoid disenfranchisement and injustice, the report states.
“Attention to equity and broad and meaningful participation of all relevant actors in decision-making at all scales can build social trust, which builds equitable sharing of benefits and burdens of mitigation [and adaptation] that deepen and widen support for transformative changes.”
The building of such trust bonds will be critical to ensuring successful adaption and mitigation efforts in forests and other ecosystems, the IPCC adds. So policy-makers will want to ensure “inclusive decision making, with Indigenous peoples and local communities, as well as recognition of inherent rights of Indigenous peoples.”
The “greatest gains in well-being in urban areas can be achieved by prioritizing access to finance to reduce climate risk for low- income and marginalized communities, including people living in informal settlements,” the IPCC authors add. “Integrating climate adaptation into social protection programs, including cash transfers and public works programs, is highly feasible and increases resilience to climate change, especially when supported by basic services and infrastructure.”
Redistributive Policies for a Just Transition
Nodding to the deep anxieties being felt by communities that are economically dependent on fossil fuel extraction and related activities, the Summary for Policymakers notes that “ambitious mitigation pathways imply large and sometimes disruptive changes in economic structure, with significant distributional consequences, within and between countries.”
Affirming the need for a “just transition” off fossil fuels, the authors note that “distributional consequences within and between countries include shifting of income and employment during the transition from high- to low-emissions activities.”
That means the burden of emissions reduction must be shifted to those most responsible and most able to take it on, the report says. “Individuals with high socio-economic status contribute disproportionately to emissions, and have the highest potential for emissions reductions,” notes the report, and plethora of options exist to realize this potential.
“Behaviour and lifestyle changes supported by policies, infrastructure, and technology can help end users shift to low-emissions-intensive consumption, with multiple co-benefits,” the IPCC authors say. And “redistributive policies across sectors and regions that shield the poor and vulnerable, social safety nets, equity, inclusion and just transitions, at all scales can enable deeper societal ambitions and resolve trade-offs with sustainable development goals.”