A Vulnerable Planet
New IPCC report reveals the dire status of the climate crisis
On February 28, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the second section of their Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). This came just days after a shocking Russian invasion of Ukraine, in which the future of oil, the largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, became a particular topic of interest.
The IPCC is a body within the United Nations responsible for assessing and reporting climate science. Since its inception in 1988, the IPCC has released six reports which are commonly referred to as the most comprehensive assessments on climate-related scientific information, human and environmental impacts, and possible routes of action.
This latest installment of AR6 concludes what scientists have been reporting for decades: global disruption to nature and people is caused and exacerbated by human-induced climate change and our window to act is quickly closing. “This is really a key moment,” says Debra Roberts, co-chair of the IPCC. “Our report points out very clearly, this is the decade of action, if we are going to turn things around.”
The report also emphasizes the disproportionate effect climate change will continue to have on the communities that are least able to manage these impacts. “This report recognizes the interdependence of climate, biodiversity and people and integrates natural, social and economic sciences more strongly than earlier IPCC assessments,” explained Hoesung Lee, the chair of the IPCC.
This report found that weather and climate events will continue to increase in magnitude and frequency, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable people and ecosystems. These events include droughts, fires, heavy precipitation, and increased heat on land and in the ocean, varying based on geographic location.
Recent research suggests that increased heat via climate change creates drier conditions, which exacerbate droughts and extend the fire season. This is visible in California, where the 2021 Dixie Fire burned almost a million acres and became the state’s second-largest wildfire, closely following the 2020 August Complex fire. In fact, four of the five largest wildfires in California history happened in either 2020 or 2021.
The report found that the intensity of these weather and climate events will continue to reduce water and food security, again impacting the most vulnerable people. The scientists reported “extreme heat events have resulted in human mortality and morbidity” and that water-borne and vector-borne disease risks have increased globally.
Since the last report, AR5, in 2014, there has been increasing evidence that humans’ destruction of ecosystems increases the vulnerability of humans, the report finds. Continued pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, unsustainable use of natural resources and land, and significant changes to land cover have adverse effects on the ability of ecosystems and communities to adapt to climate change. These effects are especially felt by “Indigenous Peoples, and local communities who are directly dependent on ecosystems, to meet basic needs.”
More than 40% of the world’s population “live in contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change”, the report finds. An interagency sea level scenario tool from NASA projects that the sea level may rise almost 10 inches by 2050 in Port Chicago and San Francisco. Sea level in Alameda is projected to rise around 7.5 inches by 2050. By the end of the century, these levels could reach 37 and 33 inches, respectively.
This report offers solutions to adapt to the climate crisis. These include inclusive governance, increasing the knowledge of risks, consequences, and adaptation options of climate change, and “political commitment and follow-through across all levels of government.” Humans have already reached some limits in our ability to adapt, but some can be overcome by addressing institutional, financial, governance, and policy constraints.
As climatologist Hans-Otto Pörtner summarized, “The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.”
The final section of the report will be released later this year.
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Ryan Ford '23,