New IPCC Report Indicts Failed Climate Leadership Around the World

Environment Policy Brief #138 | By: Todd J. Broadman | March 23, 2022

Header photo taken from: The United Nations

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Photo taken from: IPCC / Denis Onyodi

Policy Summary

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The latest Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report has been published; it is the sixth set of “assessment reports” since its foundation in 1988. The previous set was published in 2013-14. UN secretary-general António Guterres described the report as “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.” Although world leaders have committed to actions that would contain global temperature rise to 1.5°C (2.7°F) above pre-industrial levels, with the current rate of emissions, latest projections put the earth on track for a temperature rise of 3°C (5.4°F) rise by the end of the century.

If these projections are realized, 50-75% of the global population could be exposed to periods of “life-threatening climatic conditions” due to extreme heat and humidity. Currently, 3.3 to 3.6 billion people reside in places “highly vulnerable to climate change.” Overall, these well-researched trends “are leading away from, rather than toward, sustainable development.”

An important distinction highlighted in the report is that there are both “hard” and “soft” limits. On the one hand, hard limits mean that no amount of human intervention can make a difference. When warm water coral reefs completely disappear, for example, there is no “fix” or “adaptation” to be made. On the other hand, soft limits include obstacles like insufficient finance and poor planning, which could be addressed through more inclusive governance. Limited fresh water in small islands, as rising seas and extreme weather can mean sea water contamination of  fresh water is a hard limit; no amount of adaptation will bring low-lying islands back. By 2050, more than a billion people located in low-lying cities and settlements will be at risk from “coastal-specific climate hazards.”

Climate related diseases will take the lives of hundreds of thousands of humans. When we reach an increase of 1.5C, 9% of all species will be at very high risk of extinction, at 2C that percentage increases to 10% and at 3C to 12%. Human activity now shapes 70 percent of the ice-free surface of the globe. Nature is running out of places to hide with only a remaining 15 percent protected from development. With longer fire seasons and extended droughts, even that which remains is at risk.

As the oceans warm, marine species are being forced out of their natural habitats and are migrating poleward by warming waters. The report states that low-oxygen (hypoxia) zones are increasing in both size and number around the world “with growing impacts on fish species diversity and ecosystem functioning.” Fish may also be moving to deeper waters in response. The timing of significant marine events like phytoplankton blooms are also changing. Half a billion people depend on coral reefs and those reefs are dying due to ocean acidification. Calcifying organisms, such as mussels and oysters, are also at high risk of decline.

Policy Analysis

Socioeconomic status is closely linked to climate change vulnerability. The report found that across 92 developing countries, the poorest 40% of the population experienced losses from climate hazards that were 70% greater than the losses of people with average wealth. And each year 15 million more people will be living in extreme poverty conditions. They lack the resources to move or adapt. Many will lose their agricultural incomes and experience food and water insecurity, mostly in the continents of Africa and Asia.

Agricultural land that is currently used for growing crops and rearing livestock “will increasingly become climatically unsuitable,” which is even more alarming considering that  crop productions declined nearly 10% (among four major crops) between 1850 and 2010. Land still stores more carbon than it emits each year, the report says. It stores around 3.5 tons of carbon and this is three-to-five times more than the amount stored by unextracted fossil fuels and four times more than what is currently in the atmosphere.

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Children’s vulnerability to climate change results from distinct exposures, biological sensitivities (developing bodies and immune systems), and limitations to adaptive capacity (dependency on caregivers) at different life stages.

Photo taken from: Global Change (.gov)

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Contributions from philosophers, anthropologists and other authors from many different disciplines are new to this report and draw upon the qualitative aspects of climate change. Not only is economic inequality linked to increasing temperatures, but also higher hospital admissions for mood and behavioral disorders, anxiety, depression, and acute stress.

Actionable process to be followed?

Whereas 29% of electricity is generated by renewable energy and this is increasing at the rate of 7% annually, only about 11.2 percent of global heating, power, and transportation energy comes from non-carbon sources. Overall energy usage growth exceeds the deployment of sustainable energy sources. For that reason alone, UN secretary-general António Guterres has placed all G20 governments on alert and asked they “dismantle their coal fleets.” Coal is the single biggest CO2, the source of 46% of global emissions.

Underlying this report is an economic model based on infinite growth, a model adopted by most of the world’s countries. That model is at odds with the availability of energy and other material resources. If this model along with its consumption-driven societies do not alter course, the report’s high and medium risk scenarios are likely to be realized.

Engagement Resources​

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