It’s not just melting glaciers and bizarrely-early Springs anymore; climate change is impacting every facet of human civilization from our ability to grow enough crops to our ability to get along with each other, according to a new 2,300-page report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The massive report, from the Nobel Prize-winning body, states definitively that climate change is already affecting human societies on every continent, including decreasing agricultural output, worsening access to freshwater, exacerbating extreme weather, acidifying the oceans, and adding to the risk of internecine conflict.
“Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change,” said Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC, at a press conference. This IPCC report—focused on the impacts of climate change—is the second in a series of documents published by the group recently.
For those familiar with climate science and recent research, the report’s findings are not particularly surprising, yet they offer a stark aggregation of climate-related findings over the last decade, some of which have been little reported in the media. The report is particularly noteworthy for strong warnings on climate change’s impact on global agriculture, which is already struggling against a rapidly rising human population.
Child in Namibia. The new IPCC report focuses on the increasingly human costs of climate change, which the scientists say will hurt the world’s poor—and those that have contributed least to the problem—the most. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
“Production of wheat and maize globally and in many regional systems has been impacted by climate change over the past several decades,” reads the report, which also warns that “rapid food and cereal price increases have indicated that current markets in key producing regions are sensitive to climate extremes.”
The UN noted earlier this month that the world will have to produce 60 percent more food by 2050 due to population growth (from seven billion today to a projected nine billion in 35 years) and changing diets of the wealthy, including greater consumption of meat and dairy both of which also come with higher carbon footprints.
“Climate change is acting as a brake,” said Michael Oppenheimer, an author of the IPCC report. “We need yields to grow to meet growing demand, but already climate change is slowing those yields.”
Climate change could also undercut fisheries in the tropics (by 40-60 percent), where many people depend on local catches for protein, as marine life migrates to higher latitudes. In contrast, fisheries in the high latitudes could see a significant increase.
“All aspects of food security are potentially affected by climate change,” according to the report.
Access to water will also increasingly become a problem as the world warms. Today around 1.2 billion people live in areas of water scarcity—or almost a fifth of the world’s population—but “the fraction of global population experiencing water scarcity and the fraction affected by major river floods increase with the level of warming,” warns the report.
Europe’s largest coal-fired power plant in Bełchatów, Poland. Although the most carbon-intensive fuel source on the planet, coal still makes up around 40 percent of the world’s energy. Photo by: Stasisław/Public Domain.
The report also finds that extreme weather is on the rise due to climate change, including the number of heatwaves and extreme precipitation events. In the future, the scientists believe that drought will become more common and storms will intensify.
These cumulative impacts of climate change could widen growing inequalities and throw many into poverty and desperation, according to the report.
“Throughout the 21st century, climate change impacts will slow down economic growth and poverty reduction, further erode food security, and trigger new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hotspots of hunger,” reads the report. The poorest will likely be hit hardest, say the scientists, but the world’s rich will not be immune either.
“Poorer communities tend to be more vulnerable to loss of health and life, while wealthier communities usually have more
economic assets at risk,” the authors write.
Coral reefs, like this one in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, may be hugely sensitive to ocean acidification and marine warming. Coral reefs are the most biodiverse ecosystems in the oceans. Photo by: Richard Ling/Creative Commons 3.0.
In all the report predicts that climate change could hit global GDP by 0.2 percent to two percent every year, but notes that these are conservative estimates.
“Losses are more likely than not to be greater, rather than smaller, than this range, since it is difficult to account for catastrophic changes, tipping points, and many other factors,” reads the report.
Such a potent mix of poverty, hunger and inequality—often exacerbated by governmental shortsightedness—could lead to an uptick in local conflict, although the researchers are not yet ready to state that climate change could directly lead to warfare.
“Climate change indirectly increases risks from violent conflict in the form of civil war, inter-group violence, and violent protests by exacerbating well-established drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks,” reads the report. For example, the report points to recent research that climate change may be exacerbating conflict in Africa’s Sahel region, although notes this is still “contested.”
The report also warns of a vast reshuffling of the natural world, as hundreds-of-thousands of species migrate to keep up with optimal temperatures and changing resources. Those that are incapable of migrating may face extinction.
In the oceans, acidification—caused by marine intake of carbon emissions leading to lower pH levels—could result in mass extinction for marine life, starting by decimating mollusks and corals.
“Evolutionary rates may be too slow for sensitive and long-lived species to adapt to the projected rates of future change,” reads the report.
With over 700 authors and nearly 2,000 expert and government reviewers, the new IPCC report is one of the most rigorously peer-reviewed pieces of science the world over. Still, the group has not been immune to controversy, including a few errors in past reports that have led to media field-days, especially among outlets that tout climate science doubt. But, despite a still-vocal climate denier community, the world’s scientists are more certain than ever that not only is climate change happening (and happening rapidly), but that greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels are the primary driver.
Debris in Tacloban, Philippines after devastating Typhoon Haiyan. While the science connecting climate change to more and worsening hurricanes remains contentious, storm surges are higher due to rising sea levels. Photo by: Trocaire/Creative Commons 2.0
“Things are worse than we had predicted,” Saleemul Huq, an author on the report, told the Associated Press, referring to the last report on climate impacts in 2007. “We are going to see more and more impacts, faster and sooner than we had anticipated.”
Scientists have already been taken aback by the rapidity at which the Arctic Ocean is losing its sea ice, and by the pace at which some species are migrating.
Still, not everyone is in agreement. One economist who worked on the report, Richard Tol, had his name removed because he believed the final report was too “alarmist.” However, Tol was the only author—out of over 700—who asked to do this. In the past, Tol has written that he believes the impacts of climate change will be “small,” putting him at odds with the vast majority of the scientific community.
Many others believe the report doesn’t go far enough. Well-known climate scientist, Michael Mann, who did not work on the report, dubbed it “very conservative.” The IPCC reports are built around consensus, meaning more extreme findings are sometimes discarded in favor of statements everyone can agree on.
While global human society—and the natural world on which it depends—are already facing significant changes due to global warming, the report stresses that the level of risk humans face in the future will be determined by efforts to decrease greenhouse gas emissions today.
“If we don’t reduce greenhouse gases soon, risks will get out of hand,” said Maarten van Aalst, one of the report’s authors. “And the risks have already risen.”
Mendenhall glacier in 2007. The glacier has receded nearly two miles since the 1950s due to global warming, creating a lake at the bottom of the glacier. Vanishing glaciers leads to rising sea levels and water issues. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Global greenhouse gas emissions, which have been rising steadily for decades, hit a new record last year—and are expected to exceed that again this year. A number of wealthy countries have seen their emissions plateau and even drop, but this trend has been overwhelmed by rapidly rising emissions from rapidly rising countries such as China and India. However, per capita emissions are still generally higher in the wealthy world than in the developing world.
“This report tells us that we have two clear choices: cut emissions now and invest in adaption—and have a world that has challenging and just barely manageable risks; or do nothing and face a world of devastating and unmanageable risks and impacts,” said Samantha Smith, leader of the WWF Global Climate & Energy Initiative, adding, “we still have time to act. We can limit climate instability and adapt to some of the changes we see now. But without immediate and specific action, we are in danger of going far beyond the limits of adaptation.”
Last year, the IPCC warned that human society must emit no more than 1,000 gigatons of carbon if it’s to have a better than 50 percent chance of keeping temperatures from rising two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—a target agreed upon by the world’s governments. However, by 2011 global society had already emitted 531 gigatons, meaning that many of the world’s fossil fuel reserves will likely have to be left unexploited.
Although the report makes for grim reading, the scientists also focused on how some societies are already adapting to rapid climatic changes, including major coastal projects to deal with rising sea levels, changes in water management in dry regions, and urban agriculture. Still, the report warns that there are many communities that may simply be unable to adapt to the rapid changes, including those in the Arctic and on small islands.
Although the report makes for grim reading, the scientists also focused on how some societies are already adapting to rapid climatic changes, including major coastal projects to deal with rising sea levels, changes in water management in dry regions, and urban agriculture. Still, the report warns that there are many people that may simply be unable to adapt to the rapid changes, including communities in the Arctic and those living on small islands.
Recorded global temperature rise from 1880-2012. Graph courtesy of NASA.
“Awareness that climate change may exceed the adaptive capacity of some people and ecosystems may have ethical implications,” reads the report, which adds that poor countries will likely need $100 billion a year to deal with climate change.
While most scientists characterized the report as one of “risk,” last week Christopher Field, the co-chair of the IPCC said the report, discussed its possible “opportunities.”
“Although it focuses on a whole analytical and sometimes depressing view of the challenges we face, it also looks at the opportunities we face,” he said. “This can not only help us to deal with climate change, but ultimately build a better world.”
In April, the IPCC will be releasing its next report, this one focused on mitigating climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions and possible technological solutions, such as pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.
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