The issue for Ireland is not whether sea defences will be needed at Clontarf in Dublin – or at countless other places along the Irish coastline – or whether extreme flooding will become a more regular occurrence on the river Shannon. Instead the question, according to climate scientist Dr Peter Thorne of Maynooth University, is how high those defences at Clontarf and other places will be, and how extreme the actions will have to be to protect people and property living along the Shannon.
On Monday, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will issue its verdict on the scale of adaptation and climate resilience that will be needed, given the expected climate changes in the decades ahead.
In its second working group report, the IPCC will assess the vulnerability of people and nature to climate change. In a major departure, it will identify the options needed to adapt to living with those consequences, not to stop those consequences happening.
A “solutions mindset” is being applied – the age of having to deal with climate denialism has passed. Effective actions based on sound science are now needed throughout the world, and in some places more than others, to live with climate change.
The IPCC’s first working group report came last August and it was the most comprehensive assessment yet of the physical science behind a warming planet. It revealed the extent human activity is fuelling overheating through carbon emissions.
Thorne was one of the authors of the first report and it concluded climate disruption caused by humans is “widespread, rapid, and intensifying”. Monday’s document will show how bad climate change is, and how much worse it could get.
Thorne says this is in a scenario where the more we push the climate system, the more adaptation options will be lost; and those least responsible in the developing world will be least able to adapt and will suffer most.
It will be stark; inevitably so as everywhere one looks evidence is mounting, with heightened risk factors making certain populations and locations more vulnerable.
Up to now, the changes that will be necessary globally to deal with the consequences of climate shocks coming our way is “the puzzle that gets least attention, and yet has the most implications nationally and politically” across the planet.
As a consequence, the response is far short of needed, despite being all about how climate impacts hit at local level rather than the far away melting Arctic ice sheets – with every indication it will get worse, Thorne believes.
The science says nowhere is safe but language such as “adaptation” and “building climate resilience” seem to be nebulous terms for many; more at home in discussions around the IPCC table. Yet they raise questions of immense importance about daily lives and adjusting for what is known to be coming down the tracks.
In Ireland’s case, Thorne says it comes down to basic things; like how high will a sea wall in Clontarf need to be, or what defences will be put in place to contain extreme flooding on the Shannon? The questions remain unanswered as all too often, he says, politicians are caught frozen in the headlights.
Like many countries we struggle with this, he admits. If Ireland was climate resilient, "we wouldn't have stories about people wading through their kitchens in nine to 12 inches of water; we wouldn't be talking about excess deaths and people being admitted to A&E during heatwaves". All necessary elements to ensure Dublin is sufficiently protected from sea-level rise would line up; similarly in Cork, Galway and Limerick. But that is not the case; we continue to roll the dice incrementally, and so eventually we will run out of luck at the roulette table, he predicts.
The timing of the report's publication is awful because the tangible global momentum achieved at the Cop26 global summit last November is already dissipating, derailed by soaring fossil fuel prices; while Russia's invasion of Ukraine suggests the world is potentially facing a more immediate existential crisis.
Over the past fortnight parties have been poring over the final element of the report, known as the summary for policymakers, which governments approve line by line. The Environmental Protection Agency’s chief climate scientist, Dr Frank McGovern, who is directly involved, confirms it has been a slow and difficult process but hopes better progress will emerge in the final hours.
“The adaptation issue is becoming more and more relevant everywhere as climate change impacts are increasingly evident, and not just in the developing world,” he says. For Ireland, that means stress testing our systems to ensure resilience.
The Stop Climate Chaos Coalition (SCCC) of civil society organisations believes the report will confirm a world “in climate breakdown”. This will raise justice and equity issues, given rich countries are responsible for the vast majority of polluting emissions.
While all countries will need to implement adaptation plans as the crisis intensifies, it says “the need for adaptation is particularly pressing in the global south, where the vast majority of life-changing and life-threatening climate impacts are currently taking place”.
Rich countries, therefore, have an obligation to provide finance to help poorer countries adapt, but repeated promises to deliver financing have not been on the scale required and have not been delivered upon.
The report is likely to acknowledge limits to adaptation; there are climate impacts to which we can no longer adapt to or avoid. These impacts are referred to as “loss and damage” and include loss of lives, health, property, homes and sense of place and cultural identity when people’s homelands become uninhabitable.
“At present, poorer countries are having to borrow money to deal with these impacts because rich countries are refusing to provide loss and damage finance,” explains SCCC policy co-ordinator Dr Bríd Walsh.
The vulnerability of cities and coastal communities will be highlighted: 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050 yet cities are wholly unprepared to address climate impacts. As they grow, their exposure to climate risk increases.
At the latest round of UN climate talks, rich countries including the EU blocked calls from poor countries for a loss and damage finance facility to help deal with such impacts. Walsh hopes the IPCC report will push the Government to actively support it at Cop27 later this year and challenge the EU stance.
Against a backdrop of recent catastrophic weather events, the report will confirm what has been known for some time, says Dublin City University climate policy specialist Prof Diarmuid Torney: "Climate change is not some kind of distant threat, happening in some distant place or at some point in the future. It is here and now."
Not only will it set out current and projected impacts and our vulnerability to them, it will spell out how to adapt, he notes. “The final instalment, due later this spring, will focus on what we can do to reduce our contribution to climate change. That’s often what we focus on most when we talk about climate policy, but we also need to focus urgently on adapting to climate change, because we have already baked in a certain amount of irreversible climate change, which we will have to respond to.”
His fear is that the Russian invasion will suck attention away from the report, and the climate agenda more broadly. “On one level that’s understandable, but I’ve been working on climate change for over 15 years and I can’t recall any time during that period when it wasn’t said that climate change could wait while we deal with more urgent challenges. Climate change is urgent...And we need to get on with doing something about it.”
A more hopeful message emerged from climate scientist Prof Michael Mann at a recent briefing hosted by Covering Climate Now (CCNow), a media body supporting coverage of climate issues. He said we are not doomed if we act quickly, thanks to an under-reported scientific understanding which suggests that if carbon emissions are stopped altogether – albeit a target we are some way off – surface temperatures will quickly stabilise.
This runs contrary to the pervasive idea that a certain amount of warming is baked in for decades to come. "As soon as emissions are cut to zero, temperature rise can stop in as little as three years. Three years, not the 30-40 years that almost all of us as journalists thought was the scientific consensus," noted CCNow director Mark Hertsgaard. That means humanity "can still limit temperature rise to the 1.5-degree target but only if we take strong action now".
This is not a get-out-of-jail free card, they underlined in a Washington Post piece this week written with Saleemul Huq of the International Centre on Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, but “understanding that we can still save our civilisation if we take strong, fast action can banish the psychological despair that paralyses people”.
Global temperatures will not fall if emissions go to zero, they added, so the planet’s ice will keep melting and sea levels will keep rising. “But global temperatures will stop their relentless climb, buying humanity time to devise ways to deal with such unavoidable impacts. In short, we are not irrevocably doomed, or at least we don’t have to be, if we take bold, rapid action.”