This is a time for brutal frankness on climate impacts on humankind and the nature that sustains us. Based on the latest verdict from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a reasonable conclusion is the world is odds-on to miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.
Does this provide more evidence for the ‘code red for humanity’?
The “code red for humanity” declared last year based on physical impacts on the planet still applies – but this report by leading scientists located throughout the world shows we are running out of time and options, especially in adapting for the inevitable and in becoming climate resilient.
It raises the spectre of having to retreat from where humans live in a great many instances to avoid escalating risks tied into rising temperatures – graphically illustrated by the IPCC's Working Group 2 (WG2) report. This is especially the case for those in the direct firing line of weather extremes.
And be in no doubt that includes Ireland, where sea surges and beyond-normal flooding threaten coastlines, and especially major cities.
In a global context, it raises fundamental questions of justice and equity, especially for Ireland given it obvious wealth and ability to adjust – in contrast to heightened risk for Africa, parts of Asia and much of the Global South, who are least to blame and already suffering.
All told, this is the starkest account of the vulnerability of all who live on Earth and equally the planet's plants and animals. The world may be at greater risk of a nuclear war because of the actions of Russia over the past week, but the existential threat that exists because of an overheating planet driven by human activities, arguably, looms larger on the immediate horizon.
What is different this time in this IPCC verdict?
Leading climate scientists have been clinically spelling out what is coming this century for more than 30 years now. Over that time climate denialism has finally been pushed aside, though an unwelcome aspect is the surfacing of understandable feelings of doom, helplessness and eco anxiety – a reality the IPCC fully acknowledges.
But this time the WG2 prognosis – part of a global assessment known as AR6 – applies sharp focus on how human lives are likely to be impacted and the social fabric underpinning society is threatened. While there is a lot on how the physical climate is changing, it responds to what people really want to know: how their lives will change – their jobs, the cities they grow up in or the rural areas that sustain food production.
WG2 co-chair Prof Debra Roberts explained it perfectly. It's about "what agency we have to respond to those changes . . . that's the critical part of the WG2 storyline. It's the 'so what' element in the climate change story. It enables [people] to have that perspective into both the experience they currently have but also the future".
Added to that is a significant change, which will help in countering despondency. It is the application of a solutions mindset that will inform action by governments, businesses, communities and even individuals.
In that regard, it introduces the concept of “climate resilient development”; the combined process of implementing greenhouse gas reductions and adopting adaptation measures, notably using nature-based actions, “to support sustainable development for all”.
It comes with the considerable reassurance of what can be done, but we have to be honest enough to face up to the reality that there are no easy choices left.
This report reveals the ‘here and now of the climate crisis’, but what is the main indicator of this?
Undoubtedly, the immediacy of the climate threat is indicated by current (and likely future impacts) from extreme weather events. Every day provides terrible confirmation of this. Today Brisbane in Australia, for instance, is recovering from a "rain bomb" and widespread severe flooding, with every chance it is made worse by climate change rather than a consequence of natural weather.
“Widespread, pervasive impacts to ecosystems, people, settlements, and infrastructure have resulted from observed increases in the frequency and intensity of climate and weather extremes, including hot extremes on land and in the ocean, heavy precipitation events, drought and fire weather,” the WG2 report concludes.
Increasingly since the last global assessment (AR5) was completed in 2014, these observed impacts are being attributed to human-induced climate change; particularly in the form of increased frequency and severity of extreme events.
These include “increased heat-related human mortality; warm-water coral bleaching and mortality and increased drought-related tree mortality”. Observed increases in areas burned by wildfires are also blamed on human-induced climate change.
Similarly, adverse impacts from tropical cyclones, with related losses and damages, have increased due to sea-level rise and the increase in heavy precipitation. Impacts in natural and human systems from slow-onset processes such as sea-level rise, ocean acidification, and regional decreases in precipitation are all linked to how humans live at present – especially unsustainable economic activity in the developed world.
Does this report throw any light on current problems with soaring energy prices?
It is understandable that people might point to current high fossil fuel prices and ask if they are likely to derail climate action and the embracing of renewable energy, which is a critical part of decarbonisation.
This report addresses the issue in a broad way by focussing on transformation and “system transitions” in energy; land, ocean, coastal and freshwater ecosystems; urban, rural and infrastructure; and within industry and society.
“Such transitions make possible the adaptation required for high levels of human health and wellbeing, economic and social resilience, ecosystem health, and planetary health,” it underlines.
Factoring in WG2 findings, what is the key trigger to meaningful global-scale climate action now?
All comes down to somehow stabilising average global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, by slashing emissions and accelerating the ending of fossil fuel usage.
In tandem should be deploying nature itself to enhance biodiversity, restore ecosystems and arrest species decline. Quick progress on these fronts opens up an array of solutions.
In spite of current woes and activities that are pushing the world to brink of catastrophic climate change, the cumulative science strongly indicates flattening that temperature curve brings quick stabilisation in many regions of the world and a chance to respond in a better way.
That is not to say all this going to be easy. But it brings the prospect of minimising inevitable impacts and of bringing the Earth back to some degree of normality.