More than 200 scientists from 66 countries have worked together to assess knowledge on just the physical science basis of climate change. Their answers were released yesterday in the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group I.
The IPCC’s findings are clear, rigorous, and very concerning, but they are couched in formal, technical language. So a team at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre has boiled them down into seven humanitarian insights, accompanied by cartoons (not surprising as Pablo Suarez is involved along with professional humourists from CartoonCollections.com). Here are some extracts (I’ve cut the original down by about half):
‘No More “Maybe”. It’s a fact, it’s us, and it’s bad.
IPCC: It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.
The insight is painfully clear: It’s getting scary, and humanity needs to do much more to properly address causes (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) and avoid the worst consequences (addressing the growing hazards we already face today, and better anticipating what’s coming our way).
2. The unprecedented is the new normal
IPCC: The scale of recent changes across the climate system as a whole and the present state of many aspects of the climate system are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years. In other words, the past is no longer a useful guide for the present: in this new normal, we should expect what we have never experienced before.
Moreover, the new normal itself will shift and worsen over time, as the planet continues to warm.
“Many changes in the climate system become larger in direct relation to increasing global warming. They include increases in the frequency and intensity of hot extremes, marine heatwaves, and heavy precipitation, agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions, proportion of intense tropical cyclones as well as reductions in Arctic Sea ice, snow cover and permafrost.”
We need to anticipate and address drastically changing risks.
3. Impacts are already being felt everywhere
IPCC: Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe.
One of the scientific figures in this latest report shows a painful truth: ‘Climate change is already affecting every inhabited region across the globe with human influence contributing to many observed changes in weather and climate extremes.
Humanitarian workers, as well as government entities, civil society, multilateral organizations, and funders have been consistently overwhelmed in their capacity to prepare for and respond to climate-related shocks.
As humanitarians, our primary concern is for the most vulnerable, often (but not always) those already marginalised or at risk, and often already facing many other challenges such as extreme poverty, conflict or poor health.
4. It will get worse
IPCC: Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered…… With every additional increment of global warming, changes in extremes continue to become larger.
We must avoid the worst by reducing emissions as soon as we can, but also prepare for worse to come. How bad it gets in the coming years mainly depends on how much we do now to adapt and get ready – further change is unavoidable. But how bad it gets later in this century also strongly depends on how fast and how drastically we’re able to reduce emissions.
5. Abrupt and irreversible changes cannot be ruled out
IPCC: Low-likelihood outcomes, such as ice sheet collapse, abrupt ocean circulation changes, some compound extreme events and warming substantially larger than the assessed very likely range of future warming cannot be ruled out.
In other words, it is entirely possible that we’ll reach what the new report calls tipping points: critical thresholds beyond which a system reorganizes, often abruptly and/or irreversibly. There is a chance that ongoing changes are bringing us closer to some kind of cliff…
The IPCC thinks these outcomes are not likely, but they are possible and getting more likely as warning progresses. If we do indeed drop over the cliff’s edge of such climate tipping points, many more drastic changes would follow. The humanitarian consequences would be very dramatic.
New ways of working… This will require new ways of working together. One way is re-imagining virtual engagements to radically enrich events at-a-distance, promote a low-carbon, low-budget, interactive way to stimulate creative engagement and coproduction of knowledge in the fields of climate, risk, humanitarian work, and beyond. Can humanitarians and partners become virtually amazing?
6. Many different bad things will likely go wrong at once
IPCC: With further global warming, every region is projected to increasingly experience concurrent and multiple changes in climatic impact-drivers.
We have already seen too many manifestations of this pattern: extreme heat compounded by forest fires, exceptional droughts followed by flash floods, and more – often placing an impossible burden on disaster responders.
Monitoring and dealing with such compound extreme events will require humanitarians, scientists, funders, and other stakeholders to set up and nurture systems that link early warning with early action.
7. Now what? We can and must get ready for our changing climate
The IPCC document released by the IPCC Working Group I in August 2021 focuses exclusively on “The Physical Science Basis” of climate change. In other words, the scientists looked and reported only on the What, without explicitly addressing implications. In this brief document we have started to give a humanitarian interpretation of what these physical changes mean for us.
But more is coming soon from the IPCC. This includes the Working Group III report on what we can do to reduce emissions, and – especially important for the humanitarian implications – the Working Group II report on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Expected to be finalized and published by February 2022, this will have valuable information on the questions of So What and Now What, absolutely central to humanitarian work.
We obviously can’t just sit there, and hope things will work out well. Human actions have triggered a radical, ongoing change in the climate system. Human actions must now avoid it getting further out of hand by reducing emissions, but also take care of the consequences we are already facing today and prepare for worse to come.
At a minimum, we must do what we can to reduce the risk posed by the growing climate hazards: getting out of harm’s way ahead of an unprecedented tropical cyclone heading for a coastal village, considering rising risk when considering construction in a floodplain, and many more climate change adaptations necessary in relation to health systems, water and food security, how we shape our growing cities, and much, much more.’
And here’s one of the authors, Miriam Nielsen, summarizing the report in 7.5 minutes