IPCC: We Cannot Look Away—Climate Risks Are Cascading

The U.N. panel’s latest report paints a picture of the grim effects of global warming—and underscores the need for urgent, transformative adaptation.

Louisiana resident Nikita Robertson in her front yard in Raceland after Hurricane Ida, August 31, 2021

Credit: Go Nakamura for The Washington Post via Getty

UPDATE: On April 4, 2022, the IPCC released the Working Group III Sixth Assessment report on climate change mitigation. The report describes how, despite gains in the clean energy revolution, nations are falling far too short of reducing climate pollution quickly enough to avoid severe damage, cost, and upheaval. “The good news is that we have the climate solutions needed, and they work,” says NRDC president Manish Bapna. “For our economic and national security, and for the future of all life on earth, lawmakers must act without delay.”

Today the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest set of findings. These periodic reports from the specially convened United Nations–sponsored consortium, which have come to represent the scientific consensus on global warming and its impacts, rarely make for light reading—and this one is no exception. At times, in fact, it’s downright difficult to process. Between dealing with the ongoing pandemic—now entering its third year—and following the increasingly disturbing headlines coming out of Ukraine, people may well feel like they’re unable to handle any more troubling news at the moment.

But climate change gives us no choice. We can’t afford to look away. One of the IPCC report’s key takeaways is that for all of the troubling news, there’s still reason to hope—and to counter what IPCC Chair Hoseung Lee calls “a grave and mounting threat to our well-being and a healthy planet.” The authors make this very clear: Though we may no longer have time to prevent climate change outright, we do still have time to strengthen communities and save lives. If we choose not to look away but instead address these findings head-on, with clear eyes and a shared resolve, we have a real shot at lessening the impact of the climate crisis by successfully adapting to it, even as we continue to work diligently toward reducing the carbon emissions that drive it.

The earth’s average surface temperature has increased faster over the last half-century than during any other 50-year period over the last 2,000 years, a fact illuminated in the first installment of the IPCC’s three-part Sixth Assessment Report, released last summer. Its authors also pointed out that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are higher right now than at any point during the last two million years.

So what do these data points actually mean for our lands, for our waters, and for humanity? Part two of the report, the portion released this morning, gets into these details. "All life on Earth—from ecosystems to human civilization—is vulnerable to a changing climate," the authors state. "Its dangerous and pervasive impacts are increasingly evident in every region of our world," they add, "hindering efforts to meet basic human needs" and "threaten[ing] sustainable development across the globe."

But while the report may focus on our vulnerabilities to the impacts of climate change—and the limitations we face in adapting to it—it also devotes ample space to discussing our capacities to feasibly and effectively reduce climate-associated risks, and work toward a more “sustainable, resilient and equitable future for all.”

Here are just some of the key findings from today's report, a far more complete summary of which can be found here.

  • While the climate crisis is affecting everyone on the planet, it's not affecting everyone equally. "Vulnerability of ecosystems and people to climate change differs substantially among and within regions" around the globe, the authors note. Structural inequities built into our current models of development and governance, as well as "historical and ongoing patterns of inequity, such as colonialism," greatly increase the risk of certain communities—particularly low-income communities and communities of color—to the worst impacts of climate change.
  • The impacts and risks associated with climate change "are becoming increasingly complex and more difficult to manage." We can expect to see more climate hazards occurring simultaneously—and even interacting with one another—"resulting in compounding overall risk and risks cascading across sectors and regions."

Digging deeper, we see what the authors mean when they write of “climate hazards” and “risks.” And throughout, we’re made to understand the connections between what’s happening within our ecosystems—to weather, to water, to plants and animals—and what’s happening to human communities.

  • Rising temperatures and extreme weather are pushing plants and animals out of their normal habitats and into new ones, and "those that cannot adjust or move fast enough are at risk of extinction." Breeding and flowering calendars have been disrupted, greatly reducing "the ability of nature to provide the essential services that we depend on to survive"—including coastal protection and food supplies.
  • The authors note that "[c]hanges in temperature, rainfall, and extreme weather have also increased the frequency and spread of diseases in wildlife, agriculture, and people." Wildfire seasons are getting longer, and the number of acres being burned each season is increasing. Droughts have intensified, and nearly half of the world’s population experiences severe water shortages at some point during the year.
  • Deadly heat stress continues to be a major source of human misery. "Globally, the percentage of the population exposed to deadly heat stress is projected to increase from today's 30 percent to 48–76 percent by the end of the century, depending on future warming levels and location," the authors write. South Asia, tropical sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Central and South America will feel much of the impact, but Europe and the United States won't be spared.
  • Flooding events due to sea-level rise will continue to increase, "with very high losses in East Asian cities," the authors predict. "By midcentury, more than a billion people living in low-lying coastal cities and settlements globally are projected to be at risk from coastal-specific climate hazards." Mass migration from these areas "will increase competition for land and the probability of conflict and forced relocation."

Amid these immediate and looming threats, the authors write, human beings have made demonstrable progress in adaptation planning and implementation "across all sectors and regions, generating multiple benefits." But this progress has been uneven—and for the most part has tended to "prioritize immediate and near-term climate risk reduction" at the expense of "transformational adaptation."

True "climate resilient development," they note, is marked by governments, civil society, and the private sector coming together to "make inclusive development choices that prioritize risk reduction, equity, and justice," and by "governments at all levels working with communities, civil society, educational bodies, scientific and other institutions, media, investors, and businesses." And absolutely key will be "developing partnerships with traditionally marginalized groups, including women, youth, Indigenous Peoples, local communities, and ethnic minorities."

Since the IPCC first began issuing reports more than 30 years ago, the typical (and often media-driven) reaction to their publication has been one of alarm, bordering on despair. But according to Juanita Constible, an NRDC senior advocate whose work focuses on climate, health, and climate adaptation, it’s time to dispense with nihilism once and for all and to replace it with something new: motivation. The IPCC reports don’t present a single, unalterable vision for the future, she says. Instead, “they lay out a range of possible futures that we can create for ourselves.” Rather than seeing this latest report as a harbinger of doom, Constible believes we should see it as a blueprint for adaptive action. “It’s smart to be alarmed,” she says, “but we can—and should—enthusiastically be reaching for a future we want, not passively accepting one of the doomed alternatives.”

Sang Lee Farms in Peconic, New York, which has been operating and growing on Long Island for more than 70 years, is committed to using sustainable and earth-friendly farming methods.
Credit: Preston Keres/USDA FPAC

The good news? Many nations have already started to take responsibility for their own futures by implementing climate adaptation measures that begin to recognize the scope and immediacy of climate change. In India, some cities are establishing early-warning alert systems for extreme heat and helping to control oppressive indoor temperatures by painting roofs with solar-reflective paint. Here in the United States, regenerative farmers across the country are rising to the challenges they face from increasing droughts and floods by planting native perennials that improve soil health, using rotational grazing to make their land more resilient, and modifying irrigation systems. Armed with the findings from today’s report, those championing climate adaptation plans must now double down on their efforts.

Many of the climate-focused aspects of President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, currently stuck in legislative limbo, could play a part in a national adaptation strategy whose basic components could be individually tailored to meet the specific needs of different communities. Within its framework are provisions designed to address many of the very concerns raised in yesterday’s IPCC report: extreme heat, flooding and storm surge, coastal habitat loss, public health costs, and the vulnerability of our food systems. And woven throughout it is a commitment to ensuring that those who are most impacted by climate change—which in this country, as in the rest of the world, tend to be members of low-income communities and communities of color—aren’t further marginalized, but instead prioritized.

Still, as much as these provisions are needed, they’re not enough: When it comes to climate adaptation, we need to deploy a whole-of-government approach. “Build Back Better has several solid adaptation elements,” Constible says. “But it doesn’t address the lack of consideration of future climate impacts in most of our federal policies, programs, and spending. Adaptation isn’t just about building a stronger bridge here, or a better evacuation route there. It requires a sustained commitment to proactive and climate-smart decision making in every corner of the federal government.”

That’s true not just for our government, but for all governments around the world. If this latest IPCC report makes one thing clear, it’s that a piecemeal response to the systemic, ongoing, and worsening climate crisis will no longer do. Right now, we’re watching the autocratic petro state of Russia use oil and gas earnings to finance military aggression. Meanwhile, as Ukraine faces an existential threat and Europe braces for expanded conflict, there are some in the fossil fuel industry who would seek to capitalize on the unfolding tragedy by using it as a justification for more oil and gas drilling. We must reject this form of cynical opportunism, whenever and however it manifests, and replace it with new ways of thinking that recognize the centrality of climate action to economic, social, and political stability around the globe.

In other words: We have to keep fighting climate change, but we also have to keep living with it while we fight it. The era of adaptation is indisputably upon us, and the decisions we make today will determine whether we get the future we want—or the one we didn’t plan for.

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