Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Window of opportunity to adapt to climate change shrinking

The Earth
“Rising temperatures and extreme events such as droughts, floods and heat waves are exposing plants and animals to climatic conditions they have not experienced for tens of thousands of years.” (Source: NASA/Bill Anders – public domain)

According to the second partial report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published today, global warming is already leading to dangerous changes. According to the report, 3.3 to 3.6 billion people – half of humanity – live in regions that will be or are already highly affected by climate change. Another quarter must expect temporary drastic changes due to global warming.

“The impacts we are seeing today are occurring much faster and are more destructive and far-reaching than expected 20 years ago,” the IPCC Working Group on Climate Change reported on Monday. Especially short-term consequences such as crop failures have been underestimated so far. This increases poverty and inequality and will force more people who can no longer make a living at home to migrate.

Climate change is only considered controllable if we succeed in limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. However, even then, humanity will have to cope with considerable impacts in the next 20 years. Even a temporary temperature increase of more than 1.5 degrees would cause serious damage to ecosystems and societies. Governments are still not doing nearly enough to avert the worst dangers, he said.

“We have a shrinking window of opportunity,” warned the co-chair of the working group, German marine biologist Hans-Otto Pörtner. The consequences are already visible in all parts of the world. We are seeing devastating forest fires like in the Mediterranean and the western USA, floods like in the Ahr and Erft region in July 2021, and heat waves like in Siberia.

The new report – over 3,600 pages long - is part two of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report on Climate Change. It involved 270 researchers who have evaluated around 34,000 studies on climate change over the past three years. The first part on the scientific basis was published in August 2021. The third part will deal with ways to mitigate climate change. It is expected in April. The IPCC has published comprehensive assessment reports on average every six years since its foundation in 1988.

Animals and plants displaced

The experts recommend keeping 30 to 50 per cent of the earth’s surface available for natural spaces. These spaces could certainly be used, but only in a sustainable coexistence of humans and nature. “This thinking has not yet really arrived in politics,” said Pörtner. Currently, less than 15 percent of the world’s land area, 21 percent of the freshwater area and 8 percent of the oceans are protected areas.

According to the IPCC documents, ecosystems currently absorb more greenhouse gases than they produce. However, this will change if old-growth forests are cut down or bogs are drained – or if the Arctic permafrost melts. “This and other trends can still be reversed if ecosystems are repaired, rebuilt and strengthened and sustainably managed,” the scientists write. “Healthy ecosystems and rich biodiversity are the basis for humanity’s survival.”

Rising temperatures and extreme events such as droughts, floods and heat waves are exposing plants and animals to climatic conditions they have not experienced for tens of thousands of years. Global warming coincides with other challenges, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says. It lists the growing world population, the migration of people to cities, over-consumption, growing poverty and inequality, pollution, overfishing and, most recently, the coronavirus pandemic. Disease risks would continue to increase, dengue fever would spread, also to Europe.

Heat and extreme weather drive plants and animals on land and in the oceans towards the poles, into deeper waters or higher altitudes. Marine plants and animals moved an average of 59 kilometres per decade towards the poles because of rising water temperatures.

Many species have reached their limits in adapting to climate change and are threatened with extinction. With a global warming of two degrees above pre-industrial levels, 18 percent of today’s animal and plant species on land are threatened with extinction, and 50 percent at four degrees.

“The timing of important biological events such as reproduction or flowering is changing,” the scientists report. One example is the availability of insects at the time of bird breeding. By the end of the decade, fishermen in the tropical regions of Africa could catch up to 41 percent less. In Africa, fish is the main source of protein for a third of the people. By 2050, if global warming reaches 2.1 degrees, an additional 1.4 million children in Africa will be left behind forever because of malnutrition.

At 1.7 degrees of warming, the researchers expect that 17 to 40 million people south of the Sahara will have to leave their homes because, among other things, maize yields will decline. At 2.5 degrees, 56 to 86 million could migrate (regionally) due to lack of food.

Way of life must change

Fundamental social changes are now necessary. Energy must be clean, the throwaway mentality must be eliminated. Cities and agriculture must become sustainable and mobility must be adapted: more cycling instead of driving, more train travel instead of flying. It is important to involve the entire population, warned climate researcher and co-author Daniela Schmidt: “If we have wonderful green cities, people who live there now may no longer be able to afford them,” she said.

Co-author Pörtner also gives the new German government poor marks for its climate policy: “It gets a C for ambition and a D minus so far for implementation,” he told the Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

Russia’s war against Ukraine is currently setting back climate protection efforts, Pörtner said. “This conflict feels out of place when you think about the existential needs that humanity actually has in the context of the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss.” The costs of coping with the consequences of climate change and adaptation measures have been underestimated.

“The report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provides solid ecological reasons for a determined expansion of renewable energies, the dramatic events in Ukraine emphatic political ones. One thing is certain: a secure future for all is only possible with a determined switch from coal, oil and gas to clean energies from the sun and wind,” Greenpeace climate expert Karsten Smid commented on the report.

Sascha Müller-Kraenner, national director of Environmental Action Germany (DUH), proposes a general speed limit, a “renovation offensive” for buildings and the massive expansion of renewable energies in the fight against climate impacts. “The IPCC report is nothing less than a flaming appeal also to the German government to finally take immediate effective measures to reduce greenhouse emissions,” Müller-Kraener appeals. DUH called on the German government, after announcing a special fund for the German Armed Forces, to just as quickly and decisively get the expansion of renewable energies underway.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the average global temperature between 2010 and 2019 was around 1.1 degrees higher than in pre-industrial times (1850-1900) due to man-made greenhouse gases. Since the 5th Assessment Report in 2014 alone, it has risen by 0.2 degrees. (dpa / hcz)