IPCC report shows nations need to act
We know that the world is running out of carbon space, time and options to avert the catastrophic impacts of a warming climate. But what we must also realise is the United Nations (UN) and its scientific body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), are also running out of words to convey their desperate messages to us.
In the 2021 IPCC assessment report (AR6) of its Working Group 1 on the science of the climate crisis, the message was that it is “code red” for the planet. Now, the Working Group II report on impact, adaptation and vulnerability, echoes this warning and says that things are fast spiralling out of control, and the human-induced climate crisis is leading to more frequent and intense weather events. And, the predictions for the future are bleak.
There are four big takeaways from the 2022 IPCC report.
One, that the window to act, to reverse the deadly impacts of the climate crisis, is getting smaller. This means we need to do everything we can to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in this decade and not wait for the future. This is also because these gases have a long life in the atmosphere — and so, once emitted, they will “force” temperatures to rise. It is inevitable. Therefore, the only way to avert the worst of these impacts is to rein in emissions now.
Two, half the world’s population is already highly vulnerable to catastrophic changes. IPCC’s Working Group II also has, for the first time, identified cities as hotspots for climate crisis impacts. This is because urban centres are dense and highly populated; intense heat, extreme rain, tropical storms and sea surges will hit people badly. India has been identified as a particularly vulnerable nation; cities such as Mumbai and Kolkata are in the danger zone.
Three, the report says that the poor in the world will be disproportionately impacted. The fact is that the poor have not contributed to the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. They are victims whose lives will be devastated because of the emissions of the rich in the world, particularly the already rich and industrialised countries. This inconvenient truth cannot be wished or washed away. Till now, scientists have been coy about discussing the need for the equitable allocation of the carbon budget — but this time, IPCC’s Working Group II, has accepted that not only is the impact disproportionate, but also that climate justice must be recognised.
Fourth, for the first time again, this report points to the fact that climate crisis-related displacement — people being forced out of their villages and homes because of repeated extreme and variable weather impacts — is happening and will increase. We know that migration is one of the most contested issues in the world; this, according to IPCC’s report, will be accelerated and so it will add to global insecurity and tensions. For example, the report says that four million people in India have migrated because of climate-induced displacement.
But most importantly, the report points to “compound and cascading risks” – in other words, what countries do in the management of their environment will add to the hazards. This is critical. The driver for people to leave their villages is agrarian distress, and this is then made worse because of extreme and repeated weather disasters. Similarly, the increased intensity of floods is not only because of excessive rain, but also because we are mismanaging river floodplains — constructing buildings and destroying drainage. The lakes and ponds in urban areas are not just places for recreation, but essential for holding and recharging rainwater — so that we can mitigate floods. They ensure that cities become more water secure and can depend on groundwater to meet drinking water needs. The water bodies also provide spaces for treating the waste water that we discharge from our toilets.
Similarly, cities will be worst hit because of intense heat, but this is also because green spaces are vanishing; because our houses are built without ventilation, using building materials that do not provide insulation and with architectural design that does not work with nature by using principles of passive heating and cooling. The climate crisis will exacerbate these risks.
This also tells us that we cannot afford development that is not sustainable in our climate crisis-risked times. This is where we need to learn the need for the inevitable — to do everything we can today, not just to mitigate greenhouse emissions fast, but also to undertake development in ways in which we can somehow “manage” the added risks of the deadly impacts of the climate crisis.
This is where we are going very wrong. The past two years of Covid-19 have moved global attention away from the need to act urgently to reduce emissions. Just as the world was recovering and getting back to the business at hand, the Russia-Ukraine war began. As a result, global powers are now distracted from the challenges of the climate crisis.
In his State of the Union address, United States (US) President Joe Biden, who came to power last year with the promise of addressing his nation’s huge debt to the world because of greenhouse gas emissions, did not even mention the word climate crisis — other than in passing. In Europe, where the conflict has led to an increase in natural gas fuel prices, there is talk of building infrastructure to import gas from the US.
But let’s be clear, this news will not go away. The IPCC’s report may be ignored because of today’s difficulties and because making the switch to cleaner fuel is tough and inconvenient to economies. But, by now, the horrific impacts of the climate crisis — from extreme rain, floods, droughts, fires, cyclones — are happening in our world. We are hit — rich or poor — and this will get worse. And, this is not going to get better. Not unless governments act at the scale and speed that is necessary.
Sunita Narain is director-general, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal