The Appropriate Timing of the IPCC’s Climate Impacts Report
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an international body that collates the world’s peer-reviewed science on climate change to form a cohesive picture of how we are changing the climate of the planet. The IPCC’s latest report, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, assesses the impacts of climate change on ecosystems, biodiversity, and human communities, along with the capacity for human societies and the natural world to adapt to climate change.
The report was released on exactly the same day that South East Queensland—which includes my home city of Brisbane—was being inundated by rain, which led to a major flood event which eventually extended all the way down into the northern regions of the neighbouring state of New South Wales. I woke up on Sunday morning to a dear friend having sent me messages about her property being under water and how she was preparing to evacuate. Shortly after, she did, and ended up coming to stay with me while we both kept track of the news reports about the storm and rising water levels. We both clung to the hope that the flooding wouldn’t get much worse and that she’d soon be able to get safely back home to all of her belongings. The following days revealed that the water level had gotten up to the window height of an already elevated Queenslander house. A house that was built high enough that it was meant to be safe from extreme flooding events. Unfortunately, this meant that she lost everything. And she certainly wasn’t alone in being impacted. It was estimated that 15,000 homes were flooded in Brisbane alone, with over 1,500 people in evacuation centres throughout South East Queensland. Furthermore, over 50,000 people lost electricity, many of which were out of power for several days.
The Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk said that “nobody has ever seen this amount of rain in such a short period of time over our south-east catchment.”
These more extreme weather events are consistent with what is predicted from rising global temperatures due to climate change. Australia’s Bureau of Meterology (BoM) acknowledges that the planet getting hotter will mean that heavy rainfall events will get even more intense. The Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk said that “nobody has ever seen this amount of rain in such a short period of time over our south-east catchment.” Meterologist, Ben Domensino, says that 611.6mm rain fell on Brisbane between 9am Friday and 6pm Sunday, breaking the record for the highest three-day total since records began in 1840 (the previous record was 600.4mm in 1974). And this 2022 major flooding event happened only 11 years after the previous “one in 100-year” 2011 Queensland floods, which effectively means there is only 1% chance of them happening in any given year. While extreme weather events have always happened, increased global temperatures means increased evaporation and a warmer atmosphere. Increased evaporation can lead to the increased frequency and intensity of droughts in some locations, and a warmer atmosphere means that it can hold more water vapour, which increases the risk of extreme rainfall events in other locations. It is similar to what climatologist Dr. James Hansen refers to as “loaded climate dice,” which he used to explain temperature variability. With increasing global average temperatures due to climate change, it’s still possible for us to have both colder than average, and average temperature days, but the increased global average temperature simply increases the chances of having above-average temperatures in any given location. I was given a pair of “Hansen’s Climate Dice” to help illustrate this idea as part of my Climate Reality Leader training back in 2012. Dr. James Hansen explains them further in the video below.
So, like temperature variability, weather variability means that any individual extreme weather event isn’t wholly caused by climate change, but where the chance of them being more frequent and intense is increased. Below is an explainer video from the Making Sense of Climate Science Denial online course I studied through EdX back in 2015.
This leads me to a summary of the nearly 3,700 page IPCC climate impacts report, who the Chair of the IPCC, Hoesung Lee, described as “a dire warning about the consequences of inaction…It shows that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet. Our actions today will shape how people adapt and nature responds to increasing climate risks.”
The five key points, along with quotes, that The Climate Reality Project took from the report are:
1. We are living with climate change now —and we always will
Simply put, climate change isn’t just something that will affect our future, it’s already here and is something we’re going to have to live with.
“Human-induced climate change, including more frequent and intense extreme events, has caused widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people, beyond natural climate variability.”
But, every fraction of a degree of warming matters, where “risk of severe impacts increase with every additional increment of global warming during overshoot.” Which is why the IPCC reafirms that overshooting 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming “would cause unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards and present multiple risks to ecosystems and humans.”
2. Climate-fueled destruction is already immense—and worse than we thought
The impacts of climate change on the environment are already severe.
“Climate change has caused substantial damages, and increasingly irreversible losses, in terrestrial, freshwater and coastal and open ocean marine ecosystems (high confidence). The extent and magnitude of climate change impacts are larger than estimated in previous assessments (high confidence). Widespread deterioration of ecosystem structure and function, resilience and natural adaptive capacity, as well as shifts in seasonal timing have occurred due to climate change (high confidence), with adverse socioeconomic consequences (high confidence) ... Some losses are already irreversible, such as the first species extinctions driven by climate change (medium confidence). Other impacts are approaching irreversibility such as the impacts of hydrological changes resulting from the retreat of glaciers, or the changes in some mountain (medium confidence) and Arctic ecosystems driven by permafrost thaw (high confidence).”
As are the impacts of climate change on humanity.
“Climate change has adversely affected physical health of people globally (very high confidence) and mental health of people in the assessed regions (very high confidence) ... In all regions extreme heat events have resulted in human mortality and morbidity (very high confidence). The occurrence of climate-related food-borne and water-borne diseases has increased (very high confidence). The incidence of vector-borne diseases has increased from range expansion and/or increased reproduction of disease vectors (high confidence). Animal and human diseases, including zoonoses, are emerging in new areas (high confidence) ... In assessed regions, some mental health challenges are associated with increasing temperatures (high confidence), trauma from weather and climate extreme events (very high confidence), and loss of livelihoods and culture (high confidence).
3. Climate change will accelerate suffering and inequality
Climate change will unfortunately threaten access to basic necessities such as food and water for millions of people around the globe, where the most vulnerable will be the worst affected.
“Increasing weather and climate extreme events have exposed millions of people to acute food insecurity and reduced water security, with the largest impacts observed in many locations and/or communities in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Small Islands and the Arctic (high confidence). Jointly, sudden losses of food production and access to food compounded by decreased diet diversity have increased malnutrition in many communities (high confidence), especially for Indigenous Peoples, small-scale food producers and low-income households (high confidence), with children, elderly people and pregnant women particularly impacted (high confidence). Roughly half of the world’s population currently experience severe water scarcity for at least some part of the year due to climatic and non-climatic drivers (medium confidence).”
4. We cannot simply adapt our way out—not in the ways we have been
We are already rapidly approaching, or even surpassing, the capacity limits for natural systems being able to adapt to climate change.
“Many natural systems are near the hard limits of their natural adaptation capacity and additional systems will reach limits with increasing global warming (high confidence). Ecosystems already reaching or surpassing hard adaptation limits include some warm water coral reefs, some coastal wetlands, some rainforests, and some polar and mountain ecosystems (high confidence). Above 1.5°C global warming level, some ecosystem-based adaptation measures will lose their effectiveness in providing benefits to people as these ecosystems will reach hard adaptation limits (high confidence).”
5. This will be the decade humanity decides
We need to transform our energy systems and create social change to have any hope of preventing the worst possible climate outcomes, and have a chance of creating a more equitable future. Part of this includes creating inclusive decision-making processes that actively engage all communities affected, including all local communities and Indigenous people.
“There are feasible and effective adaptation options which can reduce risks to people and nature. The feasibility of implementing adaptation options in the near-term differs across sectors and regions (very high confidence). The effectiveness of adaptation to reduce climate risk is documented for specific contexts, sectors and regions (high confidence) and will decrease with increasing warming (high confidence). Integrated, multi-sectoral solutions that address social inequities, differentiate responses based on climate risk and cut across systems, increase the feasibility and effectiveness of adaptation in multiple sectors (high confidence) … Cooperation, and inclusive decision making, with local communities and Indigenous Peoples, as well as recognition of inherent rights of Indigenous Peoples, is integral to successful forest adaptation in many areas. (high confidence).”
Below is a further summary of the report by a friend, Dr. Simon Bradshaw, who currently works as the head of research at The Climate Council, and is also a fellow Climate Reality Leader (and also happens to be the person who recommended me to get involved in The Climate Reality Project).
The overall point is that we need to take climate action now to help prevent already more extreme impacts from getting even more extreme. Otherwise, floods (and other extreme weather events) like those that devastated South East Queensland and Northern New South Wales will become even more frequent and severe, further impacting the lives of all those on this planet.
Find out more about climate change from the organizations below.
The Climate Reality Project: climaterealityproject.org
The Climate Council: climatecouncil.org.au