WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
A new report is here from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. While it has plenty of alarming findings on how climate change is here, The Frontline is focusing on how much we can still do to save people and the planet.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is here, and it’s not pretty, folks. As part of the IPCC’s sixth assessment, the panel’s second working group has released a report that assesses the present-day and future impacts of climate change, as well as the vulnerabilities to human society and the adaptations we must undertake.
Last year, the IPCC published its first report in the series on how the climate crisis has left its fingerprints all over the planet’s bizarre weather. The report was clear: Time’s running out to stop the worst. Climate leaders shared with me their reactions. Now, this latest report further underlines the urgency of the issue as the authors make even more clear the risk communities face. The people who did the least to create this mess remain the most vulnerable.
“In this report, there is expanded attention to inequity in climate vulnerability and responses, the role of power and participation in processes of implementation, unequal and differential impacts, and climate justice,” the report reads.
However, adaptation is a key piece of the report, too. In a world overrun by tragedy—especially since Russia declared war on Ukraine—I’m choosing to focus on how we pull ourselves out from under the rubble.
Welcome to The Frontline, where climate solutions are on the table. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. The IPCC’s latest report is full of sobering facts and numbers, but it also offers us an opportunity to go beyond cutting greenhouse gas emissions. As the report makes clear, world leaders can take a number of steps that would not only tackle climate change, but also other issues plaguing society and the planet—from food to biodiversity.
In January 2021, Michelle Diane Hernandez got her first look at the draft version of the IPCC report released Monday. She and eight other expert reviewers with YOUNGO, the Official Youth Constituency of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, submitted about 80 comments on the cities chapter. The diverse group of young experts with backgrounds in urban planning were able to offer their criticisms on how the report should better reflect the impacts people in cities are seeing today—as well as the solutions they need.
“It’s important for us to elevate the socioeconomic implications,” said Hernandez, who co-founded the chapter’s youth working group. “This [report] is gold. This is what we know. There’s no denying it.”
And that’s what the IPCC is all about: communicating the most up-to-date science on the climate crisis and using the science to offer world leaders a guide, as Hernandez puts it, to respond. After all, we can’t only discuss what’s wrong; we must also discuss what’s needed. Solutions play a major role in the IPCC’s working group two report, which will help inform the discussions at this year’s U.N. climate negotiations in Egypt known as COP27. The assessment focuses on impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability when it comes to climate change. The 37-page summary for policymakers offers a great overview, but you can also take a deeper dive into the thousands of pages that make up the entire report.
Compared to previous reports, this assessment places a greater emphasis on the ways climate change is impacting society, the economy, public health, and equity. Among other devastating findings on how climate change is already reducing our access to food, water, and energy, the authors write that adaptation will become more complicated the longer we wait to reduce emissions, especially if the planet heats more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial temperatures. That’s because a hotter planet would essentially eliminate some natural solutions to climate change—like forests as carbon sinks.
“The report is important, and it needs to be taken seriously. At the same time, I know how important it is that we also ensure that we’re taking the experiences and the needs of people who are currently suffering through the climate crisis seriously, too.”
Last year’s report was clear that we’re inching closer to that 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold. This new report underscores how devastating it would be to human societies—especially those in the Global South—if we do.
“There is the need for us to work with the science community and also with communities who are already facing these problems,” Hernandez said. “The report is important, and it needs to be taken seriously. At the same time, I know how important it is that we also ensure that we’re taking the experiences and the needs of people who are currently suffering through the climate crisis seriously, too.”
And the report reminds us of the solutions decision makers need to seize now before it’s too late. Natural solutions, in particular, are essential to successfully address the climate emergency, but the report reminds us that they aren’t a replacement for ending our reliance on fossil fuels and cutting emissions. In fact, many climate solutions come with multiple benefits—what scientists call “co-benefits.”
“Many actions that cut greenhouse gas emissions also benefit health,” said Andy Haines, a professor of environmental change and public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who has been involved in previous IPCC reports.
The public health benefits alone are tremendous: In 2018, fossil fuels were responsible for killing more than 8 million people due to the air pollution they create. Investing in clean public transportation or renewables wouldn’t only cut emissions; it would also improve air quality. Investing in forests, for instance, doesn’t only help keep carbon out of the air; it also protects biodiversity and Indigenous communities. Greening cities through planting trees and developing green roofs helps cool cities while also making them more walkable, which comes with its own public health benefits by getting people more active.
“Healthy ecosystems are critical to prevent species’ extinction from climate change, but are also important for human health and well-being, providing clean, plentiful water, cleaning the air, providing recreation and holiday adventures, and making people feel happier, calmer, and more contented,” the report reads.
The latest IPCC report offers a few examples of co-benefits should world leaders respond to the report seriously. While some benefits target people, others target ecosystems, many of which are already suffering from issues unrelated to climate change, such as urban development or pollution.
“The working group two report will be a real wake-up call to decision makers and the wider public that climate change is having impacts on health now,” Haines said. “We need to act quickly to reduce those impacts and prevent dangerous climate change. In doing so, we can enjoy these near-term benefits.”
Climate mitigation and adaptation comes with benefits for everyone (including our non-human friends). The report makes this clear; city folks or developed nations aren’t the only ones to gain. Rural communities and countries in the Global South would, too. Any climate action that fails to account for society’s most vulnerable is doomed to fail. However, world leaders are often hyper-focused on the grand cost of climate action versus the cost of inaction. Ulka Kelkar, the climate director at World Resources Institute India, explained that’s because costs to address climate change must be borne upfront today whereas many benefits will come more slowly over decades.
“Climate change is a global problem, but there needs to be strong recognition that we aren’t all equally affected by the impacts.”
That doesn’t mean the benefits aren’t worth the investment. Some are more immediate than others. Reducing the amount of meat or dairy you eat doesn’t only help the planet—it helps your body, too. The unfortunate reality is that we live in a world that expects immediate return. We need to slow down. We need to consider the bigger picture and plan ahead.
“Unless we start putting a value on these co-benefits, we may find that we are overestimating the costs and underestimating the benefits,” said Kelkar, who’s not involved in this IPCC report but was a contributor in the third assessment report. “If we don’t take into account right now the need to avoid the damages due to climate change, some of the calculations that we are making about the future may turn out to be very wrong.”
India, for example, is the world’s third-largest coal producer. Coal is one of the dirtiest fossil fuels that exists, but it’s also served as a pathway for the country to gain access to energy, which its population sorely needs. However, if the country were to replace its coal power plants with solar plants, Kelar said, India wouldn’t only cut carbon emissions and improve air quality—it would also improve water security.
The coal sector takes up 70% of the country’s industrial freshwater withdrawal. Many plants run inefficiently, guzzling up more water than they should. In a best-case scenario where the world ran entirely on renewables by 2050, power plants would require 98% less water than they did in 2015, according to a 2019 paper published in Nature Energy. So switching to solar wouldn’t only be a climate win for India; it would be a win for farmers and other industries at a time when water may become more scarce in the region.
The latest IPCC report reminds us that cutting greenhouse gas emissions won’t only prevent further climate disaster. The steps we take to mitigate and adapt to climate change can simultaneously benefit nature and communities. On small islands, for instance, coral reefs can offer protection from storms supercharged by climate change. They can also improve the economy through tourism, fishing, and jobs, said Stacy-ann Robinson, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby College, who contributed to this report’s chapter on small islands.
“It’s very important to realize how interconnected everything is,” Robinson said. “Climate change is a global problem, but there needs to be strong recognition that we aren’t all equally affected by the impacts.”