Wildfires Rage On in Argentine Wetlands

How climate change is hurting living things on Earth right now, according to a new report

Rising temperatures around the globe are increasingly killing humans and trees, have forced half of all species on the planet to relocate, caused more water-borne and respiratory illnesses in people and threatened food and water security for millions, says a major new climate report released Monday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Climate change is actively harming humanity and all other life on the planet, our long-term fates inextricably linked. The report details exactly how we are being hurt — and contributing to that hurt. It stresses that the long-term survivability of our planet depends on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reshaping human society with sustainability in mind, both key to addressing the consequences of a warming planet.

“Half measures are no longer an option,” IPCC chair Hoesung Lee said in a statement Monday.

The IPCC, which is made up of an international assembly of top scientists, issues major reports like these every five to seven years. A report published in August detailed the science behind global warming, and the link to human activity. These latest findings – the second report in a series of three – focus on the global impacts of climate change on people and nature, which will vary based on the level of warming reached in coming decades. It also addresses adaptation options that can help ensure that the planet remains livable for generations to come.

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“This report recognizes the interdependence of climate, biodiversity and people and integrates natural, social and economic sciences more strongly than earlier IPCC assessments,” Lee said. Some of the major takeaways include:

  • A direct link to climate change. An increasing number of specific events— from coral reef die-offs to land scorched by wildfire to heat-related human deaths — can now be directly attributed to climate change. That trend is consistent with recent advancements in attribution science, which allows researchers to connect isolated incidents to the broader phenomenon of global warming.
  • Harm to mental health. Climate change’s impacts on human health are wide-ranging. The report details various mental health effects, like for those who experience or even displaced by extreme weather events like wildfires, or among people whose access to food is threatened, said report co-author Sherilee Harper, associate professor the the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health. Even a deluge of media coverage about climate change and the way those consequences will worsen over time is affecting our mental well-being.
  • Threats to health and health care systems. Extreme heat events pose a significant threat to all life, and have already caused loss of human life across the globe. More exposure to wildfire smoke and other atmospheric irritants are associated with cardiovascular and respiratory distress. And these weather events, from wildfires to extreme flooding, also pose a threat to crucial health care systems needed to address the impact on individuals and communities.

“Today’s IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” UN Secretary-General António Gutteres said in a statement Monday. He added that the globe’s biggest polluters — which includes highly developed and industrialized nations like the United States — “are guilty of arson.”

In order to limit global temperature rise to just 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels — a goal long agreed upon by the international community — the world would need to slash emissions by 45 percent by 2030, therefore achieving net zero emissions by 2050, Gutteres added. Instead, he said, global emissions are set to increase nearly 14 percent over the current decade.

Though the implications of this report are dire — as were the others that came before it — experts are not hopeless. There are a wealth of paths that decision-makers can take in order to improve resilience to climate change and reduce its effects, many of which will be specific to different communities.

In order to identify which options are best for the people and ecosystems in question, the authors emphasize the importance of prioritizing local and Indigenous knowledge in developing and successfully implementing action plans.

Meanwhile, steps to bolster biodiversity and ecosystems can provide direct benefits to human communities. Restoring wetlands, increasing the number of green spaces in cities and incentivizing farmers to diversify their crops and livestock are all examples of actions that both support the independence of people and nature, according to the report.

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Climate change will have direct implications for our food security and nutrition

Climate change is already threatening agriculture, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture, report co-author Rachel Bezner Kerr, a professor in the Department of Global Development at Cornell University, said in a Sunday news briefing. Some areas of North America and other parts of the globe are starting to face threats to their food security and safety, which are projected to worsen without intervention.

As temperatures rise, the amount of time people can safely spend outside will shrink, leading to reduced hours (and therefore reduced pay) for those whose livelihoods rely on outdoor work, such as farmers and some other laborers.

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The ripple effects of reduced opportunity for farm labor, as well as a changing landscape for agriculture itself, means that more people will be at risk of not having enough to eat. The report found that:

  • Flood and drought-related acute food insecurity and malnutrition have already increased in Africa and in Central and South America.
  • Food productivity on land and in the sea is threatened by rising temperatures, which weaken soil health, increase pressure from pests and diseases and reduce the amount of seafood or shellfish available to eat.
  • Climate change will have implications for labor migration and urbanization as certain groups are potentially forced to leave agriculture behind and find alternative sources of income.

Experts emphasize that these factors will lead to rising food prices and risks of malnutrition, as well as raise concerns about food safety, including contamination of certain crops and seafood.

Urban populations will skyrocket in coming decades, offering challenges and opportunities

Half of the world’s population currently lives in cities. By 2050, that number is projected to grow to 70 percent, with many people in unplanned or informal settlements, according to the report.

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Today, many urban residents are subject to more heat waves, which can contribute to poorer air quality and render crucial infrastructure unreliable. As is the case with other impacts of climate change, those who are most economically and socially marginalized are especially vulnerable to these conditions which can also threaten access to necessities like transportation, sanitation and water. The report found that:

  • The cost of maintaining and fixing urban infrastructure will increase alongside warming. Disruptions are expected to be more severe for coastal communities and those located on permafrost.
  • Urban agriculture can actually help stabilize food systems and increase their sustainability.
  • Multiple cities have already included adaptation in their climate policies and planning, attributable in part to growing public and political awareness of the effects of climate change and risks.

William Solecki, the report’s co-author and a professor of geography at City University of New York’s Hunter College, said cities are a classic example of both challenge and opportunity. He added that innovative adaptation approaches like cultivating urban vegetation — which can provide cooling benefits in heat-prone cities — can enhance cities’ safety and stability.

IPCC co-chair Debra Roberts echoed there are many ways that cities can give us chances to repair the damage. “Green buildings, reliable supplies of clean water and renewable energy, and sustainable transport systems that connect urban and rural areas can all lead to a more inclusive, fairer society,” she said in a press release Monday.

Adaptations must consider local needs and knowledge to be successful

Successful climate change adaptations are designed with both humans and nature in mind. That’s because the success of natural ecosystems has a direct impact on our wellbeing and our ability to stop or reduce warming.

One example is existing carbon sinks. Permafrost and forests are natural ecological systems that help soak up carbon from the atmosphere. But increased warming threatens their stability and can even reverse the role they systems play, turning them instead into sources of carbon.

There isn’t enough data to pinpoint what specific level of warming would permanently shift these systems away from their role as carbon sinks, said report co-author Camille Parmeasan of the University of Plymouth’s Marine Institute. But she emphasized that “every increment of warming” weakens their ability to store carbon.

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Local and Indigenous knowledge have historically been largely locked out of institutional discussions around climate change. Indigenous communities in particular often rely heavily on the natural systems most at risk, and the report emphasizes the value of incorporating that wisdom into effective adaptation approaches:

  • When decision-making includes local and Indigenous knowledge, and coordinates across risks and institutions, prospects for climate-resilient development increase.
  • Maladaptation, or efforts that don’t consider adverse outcomes particularly for marginalized people, can both reinforce and entrench existing inequalities among those groups. Initiatives that are informed by local, Indigenous and scientific knowledge, as well as culture values, can help prevent those outcomes.
  • The new report marks the first time that colonization has been listed as a root cause of vulnerability to climate change.

Effective interventions that reduce climate impacts and risks look different depending on the people and places in question, and therefore must put “vulnerable groups and countries at the heart of the decision making process,” said report co-author Edwin Castellanos, director of the Sustainable Economic Observatory at Universidad del Valle de Guatemala.

“We need to remember that we are part of the nature that surrounds us and not its owners,” Castellanos said.