Pablo Suarez

Humanitarian insights from the latest IPCC report – via cartoons and cardboard theater

Guest post by the always-original Pablo Suarez

The science of climate change impacts can be painfully confusing, and at times infuriatingly complex to communicate, especially for those of us who need to act and help based on what is known. Last week the IPCC released “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”, a full report with over 3,000 pages of formal, technical content, with a rigorous Summary for Policymakers  that has been approved by 195 national governments. The IPCC’s findings are comprehensive, compelling, and very concerning.

Now we need to understand and address the report’s implications, in language(s) everyone understands. You may recall from this earlier fp2p blog on humour that cartoons have been helping nurture humanitarian learning and dialogue through serious fun. Well, with my Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre colleagues Erin Coughlan de Perez and Maarten van Aalst, who were also IPCC lead authors, we have crafted these eight humanitarian insights derived from the report. This blog offers a distilled version of those insights, enhanced through a selection of cartoons, along with images from a just-released 5-minute video on the science of climate impacts, presented by cardboard theatre (with thanks to Hamishibai and Daniel Stephens).

1.   Climate change is changing humanitarian crises

Now science can say it: “Climate change is contributing to humanitarian crises”. There’s a climate change ‘fingerprint’ in the pattern of threats, such as extreme conditions that are triggering migration, hunger, and avoidable deaths. The IPCC says, with high confidence: “Climate and weather extremes are increasingly driving displacement in all regions”.

2.   Climate change has already disrupted the lives of billions

The science of climate impacts used to be about the future. Now it’s also about the “here and now”, everywhere. In addition to addressing the causes of climate change, it is absolutely imperative to anticipate and prepare for its steadily rising consequences.

Credit: Hamishibai

In every region of the world, climate change has affected peoples’ health. Extreme weather events have caused deaths, trauma, water scarcity, and hunger. The IPCC also says: “Roughly half of the world’s population currently experience severe water scarcity for at least some part of the year due to climatic and non-climatic drivers.”

3.  Consequences for humanity will get even worse, sooner than we thought

Severe climate risks, previously assumed to be distant, are actually much closer than previously anticipated: even small additional increases in global temperatures will have big consequences. If we don’t anticipate and course-correct our paths, we will likely find ourselves walking into a future full of abrupt, dangerous changes.

For example, in the 2014 assessment, the risk from extreme weather events was on the edge of “undetectable”, and now in 2022 it is already “moderate to high” because of all the unprecedented events we have seen over the past few years.

4.  Climate change doesn’t act alone. Marginalization makes impacts worse

Natural hazards only cause suffering when people are unable to cope with changing conditions. The IPCC says, with high confidence: “Losses and damages are unequally distributed across systems, regions and sectors and are not comprehensively addressed by current financial, governance and institutional arrangements, particularly in vulnerable developing countries.”

Credit: Hamishibai

Of course we need to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions (covered in the upcoming IPCC AR6 WG3 report). From a humanitarian perspective, it is also urgent to prepare for the unavoidable consequences of climate change. We know from humanitarian experience that a changing climate creates dreadful complexities when combined with other forces that push people to the margins of survival – such as armed conflict.

5.   Everyone everywhere can adapt, within limits

When the world around us changes, we can change to manage new conditions. In a rapidly warming planet, adapting to our new climate will be crucial to avoid massive suffering, loss, and damage. The IPCC says: “There are feasible and effective adaptation options which can reduce risks to people and nature” The new report offers numerous examples of climate change adaptation, including on flooding, heat, vector-borne diseases, and much more. Importantly, when our efforts to adapt cannot avoid intolerable risks, we hit hard limits.

6.   However, funding and action are absurdly short

It’s very hard to need an ocean of support, but only get a spoonful. In a global assessment of adaptation, the IPCC found that people are mostly making small tweaks, or writing planning documents. There are major gaps in what has been implemented to actually reduce risks around the world. If we continue planning and adapting at this rate, the IPCC predicts that this adaptation gap will continue to grow.

Credit: Hamishibai

“Current global financial flows for adaptation, including from public and private finance sources, are insufficient”, concludes the IPCC report. This limits our ability to take action, especially in developing countries.

7.   Responding to climate change will create new risks

Solving one problem can create new ones. Like so many other things, adaptation to climate change can go wrong. The new report speaks of maladaptation: “actions that may lead to increased risk of adverse climate-related outcomes, including via increased greenhouse gas emissions, increased or shifted vulnerability to climate change, more inequitable outcomes, or diminished welfare, now or in the future.”

The IPCC says: “Most often, maladaptation is an unintended consequence.” As the need to adapt becomes more and more prominent, we must prepare for the humanitarian consequences of both direct climate impacts – and of adaptation going wrong.

8.   We have a short time to choose a radically new, climate resilient future

It will be necessary to adapt in a way that is transformational (such as changing livelihoods) and not just incremental (such as higher dams). Adaptation will not be successful if it does not address the root causes of inequality. The IPCC says: “Peoples, local communities, and civil society can, including through international cooperation, advance climate resilient development by addressing structural inequalities, insufficient financial resources, cross-city risks and the integration of Indigenous knowledge and Local knowledge.”

It is urgent to embark on this new pathway today. “Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”

Our conclusion: we need to re-energize humanitarian work in a changing climate

The science of climate change is unequivocal: No More “Maybe”. It’s a fact, it’s us, and it’s bad. Human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. The IPCC says “Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health.” And it’s getting worse, fast. The unprecedented is the new normal.

This is just the beginning of the era of consequences. We see that too many of our colleagues can’t keep up. Physical, cognitive, emotional and financial exhaustion are creeping into the day-to-day life of humanitarian staff, volunteers and partners dealing with rising needs for disaster response, preparedness, risk reduction and so much more. It’s going to get too hot, too tough, too fast. So it’s time now to re-energize the humanitarian system, and become fit for the future. 

It’s time to get ready.

And here’s the cardboard theater again

Pablo Suarez is Innovation lead, Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, and Artist in Residence, National University of Singapore Lloyd’s Register Foundation Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk

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