Last week, U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the second phase of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). The report asserts that the effects of climate change will continue to be felt throughout the world should we fail to implement adaptation strategies and scale back greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Following the review of more than 34,000 studies, 270 scientists from 67 countries, known as Working Group II (WGII), compiled this second report. Compared to previous assessments, this report pays greater attention to the changing climate’s impact on society and the importance of social justice.
Last year, the first phase – completed by Working Group I (WGI) – of the AR6 assessed the physical science of climate change, reaffirming the indisputable scientific evidence of an already-warming planet and that human activity is clearly the cause. Read Climate XChange’s short summary of last year’s report here.
In its newest phase of the report, the IPCC maintains that keeping warming below the critical 1.5ºC threshold is still within arm’s reach, but we are rapidly approaching a closing window of opportunity to do so. The final lines read: “The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future.”
Since the United Nations is the governing body for the WGII report, the assessments and recommendations in it are global ones. However, those findings can be applied to state-level action in the U.S. Below are some key takeaways from the WGII report and how they can shape states’ future decisions on creating a livable future for all of their residents.
Vulnerability and Socio-Economic Status
The WGII report focuses on the projected impacts and risks of climate change on human societies. It indicates that up to 3.6 billion people live in areas highly vulnerable to climate change, and regions with development limitations are more vulnerable. As we know, those in the Global South will face – and already are facing – the brunt of climate hazards, despite being among the least responsible for carbon emissions. In highly vulnerable areas, human mortality from floods, droughts, and storms were 15 times higher than in areas considered less vulnerable between 2010-2020.
The IPCC identifies issues such as colonialism and marginalization on account of ethnicity, gender, and class as key culprits in exacerbating vulnerability. Displacement, extreme poverty, and food insecurity are only a few of the impacts that vulnerable populations will continue to face should governments fail to implement critical climate action plans.
In the U.S., the most economically disadvantaged states, and thus some of the most vulnerable, are largely unsupportive of transformative climate policy. Senators from nine out of the ten states with the highest poverty rates don’t support Build Back Better, President Biden’s bill that would keep his climate promises and fund other major social programs. Ironically, though these states are among the least resilient to climate change, their residents are also less likely – when compared with the country’s average – to believe that the impacts will harm them.
It’s important for policymakers to assess the vulnerability of their communities, and accurate demographic data can help. Headwaters Economics’ Populations at Risk Tool allows users to generate free reports about an area’s populations that are more likely to experience adverse outcomes due to different risk factors. For a hazard like sea level rise, states can pair demographic information with a tool like the Surging Seas Risk Finder, which presents maps of areas at risk to coastal flooding and shows sea level projections based on several emissions scenarios. Or, just look up your state’s grade on this resiliency report card.
The WGII report assesses climate change impacts and risks in specific regions, taking a look at potential adaptation and climate resilience opportunities. Throughout these regional assessments, the report emphasizes the need for the integration of Indigenous knowledge systems and Indigenous stakeholders in adaptation and mitigation strategies. The IPCC notes that Western science may be insufficient in addressing natural resource challenges, and acknowledges the importance of meaningfully incorporating Indigenous knowledge into assessment processes. Such knowledge may be related to sustainable agriculture practices and responsible ecosystem management. This breaks new ground in acknowledging Indigenous Peoples as increasingly crucial stakeholders in the fight against the climate crisis.
Across the continent, Indigenous communities are taking action to adapt to living in a warming climate, though they are not new to sustainable land stewardship. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, salmon is a keystone species of the ecosystem – meaning without it, the whole system could change or collapse. The Swinomish People, on the Skagit River, are using generational knowledge to create better spawning areas and planting trees to reduce river temperatures and ensure the longevity of the fish – and their people.
At a Climate XChange Webinar in November 2021, Jade Begay, a Dine woman and the Climate Justice Campaign Director at the NDN Collective, asked that policymakers support Indigenous communities in a few ways. She said that policymakers should understand and respect certain frameworks such as Free, Prior, and Informed Consent, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the National Environmental Policy Act. She also stresses the need to move resources into Indigenous communities in an equitable way and invites policymakers to visit those communities to learn how their systems can benefit policymaking.
Early action that limits global warming close to 1.5ºC would “substantially reduce projected losses and damages related to climate change… but cannot eliminate them all.” At global warming levels of 1.5ºC, up to 14 percent of species in terrestrial ecosystems are at a high risk of extinction, rising to 48 percent at 5ºC. The number of people exposed to a 100-year coastal flood is projected to rise by 20 percent should global mean sea levels rise 0.15m relative to 2020 levels. As 40 percent of the U.S. lives on the coast, this should inspire those states to take bigger adaptation measures because the WGII report says what’s being done isn’t enough.
Even hitting what the report calls a “temporary overshoot” – meaning we exceed 1.5ºC but return to below or stay at that level after several decades – would result in irreversible impacts to polar, mountain, and coastal ecosystems due to ice sheet loss, glacier melt, or sea level rise. Human infrastructure, coastal settlements, and cultural and spiritual values are similarly at further risk in the event of a temporary overshoot.
To be clear, adaptation refers to the reduction of exposure and vulnerability to climate change, primarily characterized by adjusting existing systems. This report not only provides greater insight into viable adaptation strategies, but also provides an assessment of potential feasibility, potential benefits to specific sectors and groups, and relation to Sustainable Development Goals.
A few of the climate adaptation options the report highlights include agroforestry, integrated coastal zone management, and the implementation of resilient power systems. Progress on adaptation has been made worldwide as awareness about climate change has increased, with at least 170 countries incorporating adaptation measures in their climate action plans. Yet, the report acknowledges the failures of adaptation initiatives focused on short-term climate risk reduction, as this diminishes the likelihood of there being “transformational adaptation”, along with the fact that current levels of adaptation fall short of what is necessary to truly reduce climate risks.
The IPCC also points to maladaptation, strategies that actually increase vulnerability, as potential risks to frontline communities. These interventions may result in infrastructure that is inflexible or expensive to change, such as seawalls, which have short-term benefits and long-term risks.
Unsurprisingly, California is among the states that are leading the way with adaptation policy. In 2018, the Governor’s Office published a guidebook that helps state agencies build resilience into their planning and investment decisions. The state also has implemented policies in resilient infrastructure, drought and wildfire mitigation plans, and ensuring funding for future programs.
The states lagging behind the most in adaptation work are also the ones that will be most impacted by climate change. States along the ocean and those with major rivers, like Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, and Mississippi risk severe storms and significant flooding. Of these states that actually have some adaptation programs, most of the efforts are in disaster relief instead of taking preventative steps.
As the IPCC indicates, staying below 1.5ºC is still possible, but we are losing time. If rapid global action is not taken by 2030, increasingly dangerous warming will occur. In the next eight years, global emissions must be halved to stay below this threshold. Coupling this with long-term adaptation strategies, nature-based solutions, and increased stakeholder engagement is critical to avert irreversible climatic change.
The WGII report recommends some general actions to increase resiliency and mitigate climate change impacts. Broadly, the IPCC asks that we acknowledge the connected relationship between the climate, biodiversity, and human society. Since each of these affects the others, it’s crucial to implement conservation and climate change responses in unison.
Additionally, states can lower risks to their residents by incorporating measures that strengthen nature. Restoring wetlands can decrease flood risk, planting trees can provide shade to cool people and livestock, and diversifying crops will help maintain healthy soil.
The Working Group III contribution to AR6 is expected to be reviewed by the IPCC from March 21 to April 1, 2022. It will focus on short- to long-term mitigation pathways, the importance of climate finance, sustainable development, and technological advancements within the context of climate action, and will also take a closer look at different sectors such as agriculture and transportation. Yet, with how clearly AR6 has demonstrated that the time for action is now, it’s reasonable to wonder: how many more reports do we need? Climate scientists have been asking the same question. The evidence is abundantly clear, and IPCC reports have proven time and again that global leaders must act rapidly to avoid the dire consequences of inaction. So what gives?
With five IPCC assessment reports and 26 Conferences of the Parties over the last several decades, the opportunities to enact change have recurrently been outlined by climate scientists and advocates. Yet, our window of opportunity is slipping away, making this a truly defining decade for our planet.
The 3,500-page report is daunting, but several outlets have further outlined major takeaways from AR6. Find additional resources covering the report below, along with resources to help you better understand and communicate climate change, care for your well-being amidst growing climate anxiety, and actionable ways to look forward.
More on the report:
- The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report – WGII
- 5 Takeaways From the UN Report on Climate Hazards | The New York Times
- 14 Takeaways From The Latest UN Study On Climate Change’s Deadly Toll | HuffPost
- 6 Big Findings from the IPCC 2022 Report on Climate Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability | World Resources Institute
- IPCC Report: The Climate Crisis Requires Solutions That Do It All | Atmos
- The IPCC Report and the need for radical climate action | World Economic Forum
- Why climate solutions will fail without the help of social scientists | Vox
- Basics of the Science Behind Climate Change | The New York Times
- Communicating the Climate Crisis | Climate XChange
- What is climate change? A really simple guide | BBC News
- Understanding Climate Change | Climate Generation
- Resources for working with climate emotions | All We Can Save Project
- IPCC report spotlights mental health impacts of climate change | Climate Home News
- How to tackle climate anxiety, according to mental health experts | World Economic Forum
- 7 Resources to Help You Cope With Climate Anxiety | TIME
- 3 Questions to Ask After the New IPCC Climate Report | Ocean Conservancy
- IPCC report leads to calls for passage of Build Back Better Act | NM Political Report
- IPCC: Sea Level Rise Adaptation Is Essential, Not Optional | NRDC