World’s leading climate body paints a picture of a planet in turmoil

By Karen McGhee, science and environment editor March 2, 2022
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The strongest warning yet has been delivered about the consequences of climate change and the failure to address rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Earth is in crisis and climate change is the cause.

That was the overwhelming and unequivocal message that accompanied the release this week of the most recent report by the IPCC – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

This is no ordinary document. “An atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” is how the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, described it to the world at a press conference live-streamed from Berlin on Monday (AEST). “With fact upon fact this report reveals that the people of our planet are getting clobbered by climate change.

Unchecked carbon pollution is forcing the world’s most vulnerable on a frogmarch to destruction now. The facts are undeniable. This abdication of leadership is criminal.”

The UN head was followed in quick succession by some of the world’s leading authorities on the subject voicing similar sentiments and beseeching the global community to act urgently and forcefully against climate change.

“The findings of the IPCC report that we are releasing today are clear: the stakes for our planet have never been higher,” said Dr Hoesung Lee, the IPCC Chair and an expert on the economics of climate change, energy and sustainable development. “We are on course to reaching global warming of 1.5° Celsius within the next two decades and temperatures will continue to rise unless the world takes much bolder action.”

These are not people prone to emotion or rhetoric. And yet this series of highly regarded middle-aged and older, conservatively dressed, men and women, each spoke with the same sort of powerful sentiments more often heard from the likes of teenage Swedish climate-change activist Greta Thunberg… although without with her trademark passionately volatile delivery.

“Our atmosphere today is on steroids, doped with fossil fuels,” said Professor Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organisation. “This is already leading to stronger, longer and more frequent extreme weather events.”

Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme followed. “The message this report sends is clear: climate change isn’t lurking around the corner waiting to pounce,” she said. “It is already upon us, raining down blows on billions of people.”

“We are in an emergency heading for a disaster.”

And it’s not likely that anyone among the many people on Australia’s east coast who have been struggling recently to hold their lives and livelihoods above floodwaters would have argued.

“We are seeing an increased risk of extreme events across the globe, whether it’s fires here in Australia or the US or in Chile or the Mediterranean, or whether it’s floods such as we’re seeing now [in northern NSW],” Professor Mark Howden, Director of the Australian National University’s Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions, said during a briefing in Australia on the report.

Howden was vice-chair of the working group that pulled this report together and one of more than a dozen Australian authors among the 270, from 67 countries worldwide who contributed to the report that took five years and explored 34,000 scientific papers.

The IPCC was formed in 1988 to give policymakers scientific advice on climate change.

It’s been producing a report on the risks and realities of climate change and how to deal with the phenomenon every five years or so since 1990. And each has got progressively stronger with its warnings.

The report released yesterday – Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability – was the second and final part of the sixth such report. And its potency doesn’t lie so much in that it shows anything particularly new or surprising that hasn’t been already reported elsewhere during the past few years.

But it brings together the evidence of the impacts of climate change in such a comprehensive way that it makes it impossible to think of the phenomenon as anything other than the most profound issue that humanity has ever faced.

Right across the planet, the report makes it clear, climate change is already affecting every industry sector, population, piece of land, body of water.

There is a separate chapter on Australia, which sounds the alarm loudly for some of the country’s most iconic habitats, from the Great Barrier Reef – already severely, and predicted to continue to be, damaged by ocean warming and marine heatwaves – to the “alpine ash, snowgum woodland, pencil pine and northern jarrah forests in southern Australia” disappearing “due to hotter and drier conditions with more fires”.

These ecological communities were among a list of nine key climate risks identified for Australia. That list also includes a “loss of alpine biodiversity in Australia due to less snow” and the “loss of kelp forests in southern Australia and southeast New Zealand due to ocean warming, marine heatwaves and overgrazing by climate-driven range extensions of herbivore fish and urchins”.

Other risks, the evidence show with “high confidence”, involves the “disruption and decline” of Australian agriculture and the loss of both “natural and human systems” in coastal areas.

The list also flags the “inability” of Australia’s “institutions and governance systems to manage climate risks”.

And it introduces into the climate-change lexicon the terms “cascading and compounding”. These describe a kind of domino effect that occurs when one industry or habitat faces combined impacts of climate change, as occurred in the Black Summer bushfires in eastern Australia in 2019-20, which were exacerbated by extreme drought, low rainfall and the failure of communication systems.

“The risks are so severe now and so widespread that the links between everything is increasing,” explained Professor Gretta Pecl, a lead author on the Australasian section and a specialist in climate change ecology with the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania, in a conversation with Australian Geographic.

There’s one aspect of this report that hasn’t been seen before to any great extent in previous reports and that’s its prediction that many of the answers to this catastrophe will be found in nature. It’s a profound shift.

In its introduction to its summary for policymakers the report explains that it “recognises the interdependence of climate, ecosystems and biodiversity, and human societies and integrates knowledge more strongly across the natural, ecological, social and economic sciences than earlier IPCC assessments. The assessment of climate change impacts and risks as well as adaptation is set against concurrently unfolding non-climatic global trends e.g., biodiversity loss, overall unsustainable consumption of natural resources, land and ecosystem degradation, rapid urbanisation, human demographic shifts, social and economic inequalities and a pandemic.”

For several decades now the two most pressing environmental issues facing the plant have been climate change and biodiversity loss and the search for answers to both have run in parallel lanes, albeit with climate change far ahead in terms of its profile and attempts to address it.

In this report, in which there’s a separate section on biodiversity, these two issues now clearly intersect, and the answers to both are intimately linked.

Stop logging in the Amazon or Australia’s many diverse forest ecosystems, for example, and you not only protect a huge number of species, but you also keep a massive load of carbon from entering the atmosphere.

“These nature-based solutions are things that we absolutely need to be doing and anything that we do to reduce other stress and impacts on our ecosystems helps them be more resilient, so that is a good thing anyway,” explained Pecl. “But it will also help draw more carbon out of the atmosphere even though those actual systems themselves are still under great threat.”

In continuing her metaphor of climate change as an attacking beast, Andersen, said:

“We need to soften and slow the blows by cutting greenhouse gas emissions but we also need to cushion the blows by picking up our efforts to adapt to climate change, which have been too weak for too long.

“The best way to do this is to let nature do the job it spends millions of years perfecting, absorbing and channelling rainwater and surging waves, maintaining biodiversity and balance in the soils so that diverse plants can grow, providing cooling shade underneath their canopies.

“We need largescale ecosystem restoration from oceans to mountain tops.”

Despite the doom and gloom forecast so extensively in the report, its proponents are eager to send a message that there is still time. “Every fraction of a degree of warming that we can avoid is pain and suffering avoided,” Pecl was keen to reinforce. “So it’s not just ‘oh well, we’re [ruined] because all of these risks will just keep increasing with further warming’.”

Every action for change makes a difference, she said. “Avoiding 1.5 is great, that’s better than 2, and 2 is better than 2.5 and that’s better than 3. We need to cut warming as much as we can and any degree of warming that we can save is worth the effort.”

It’s a sentiment held by most people working in this space, including the UN Director-general.

“I know people everywhere are anxious and angry,” Guterres said of the finding in the report. “I am too. Now is the time to turn rage into action. Every fraction of a degree matters. Every voice can make a difference and every second counts.”