The most comprehensive report on the human and ecological impacts of climate change — spanning more than 3,600 pages with contributions from more than 270 authors — was released on Monday by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The report describes the heatwaves, floods, wildfires, and droughts that are already overwhelming communities and causing chain reactions of decreasing food and water availability, forced migration, conflict, public health crises, and much more. 

Drawing on the latest research, the authors soberly show how humanity is barreling toward catastrophic, irreversible events, but argue that the worst outcomes can be avoided if fossil fuels are phased out, proven adaptation efforts are supported, and a just transition informed by Indigenous wisdom is embraced on a global scale. 

“There is hope,” Ani Dasgupta, President and CEO of World Resources Institute, said in a statement. “We still have a narrow pathway to avoid the very worst climate impacts. The world’s heaviest emitters must urgently cut emissions, significantly scale up international funding for adaptation to strengthen resilience to climate impacts, and provide funding to vulnerable countries to deal with unavoidable losses and damages. 

“At the same time, governments must quickly turn the many promising adaptation plans into action on the ground to protect food, water, homes, and critical infrastructure,” she continued. “The newest IPCC report offers the definitive scientific foundation on which policymakers should build their action plans for climate resilient development for all.”

The IPCC report is a vast undertaking by thousands of scientists and researchers worldwide. The work is split among three working groups that focus on different aspects of climate change from the physical science to the impacts to mitigation efforts. 

The latest report comes from Working Group II, which focuses on impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation efforts, and shows the intersectional nature of climate change, the ways in which existing inequalities and injustices compound its effects. 

The authors argue that everything is connected under the scope of the climate crisis and that all actions, no matter how small, are necessary to keep temperatures from rising beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, which is the goal of the Paris climate agreement. 

That means that it’s both necessary for countries to transition as fast as possible to renewable sources of energy and non-extractive economies, and for everyday people to make changes in their personal lives to support the health of the planet.  

But time is running out. 

Even 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming would generate inhospitable conditions for vast swaths of the human population. By the end of the decade, current warming trends could push 132 million into extreme poverty and make it harder for an additional 350 million people to get clean water on a regular basis, according to the report. Roughly 14% of land species could face extinction at 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming — a development that would undermine food systems worldwide, jeopardizing the ability of billions of people to get enough nutrients. 

For each additional tenth of a degree in average temperature increases, the closer humanity comes to “hard limits” of adaptation, meaning situations that cannot be remedied. For example, rising sea levels fueled by melting ice caps could entirely wipe coastal regions and low-lying island nations off the face of the map. Another hard limit involves the thousands of species that could disappear in the years ahead because the planet is no longer a safe place to live.

The report also shows how poverty makes people more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and how a country’s vulnerability level overall depends on their ability to finance adaptation and mitigation efforts. 

The consequences can be measured in lives lost. Between 2010 and 2020, the report highlights, the mortality rate in the most vulnerable countries from extreme weather events was 15 times greater than the rate in the least vulnerable countries. 

This disparity underscores why wealthy countries need to provide adequate climate financing for low-income countries. In 2009, wealthy countries agreed to provide $100 billion in annual climate financing by 2020, but have failed to fulfill this promise — and have said they are unlikely to until 2023. The costs of needed adaptation funding have since risen to $127 billion per year, according to the report. 

Global climate financing is a form of climate reparations because wealthy countries, and the polluting industries they foster, have largely caused the climate crisis. 

In a press conference discussing the IPCC report, António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, put a sharper point on the matter, calling government leadership “criminal” and saying that “the world’s biggest polluters are guilty of arson on our own home.”

Guterres called out fossil fuel companies, in particular, for their culpability and hypocrisy. 

“You cannot claim to be green while your plans and projects undermine the 2050 net zero target and ignore the major emissions cuts that must occur this decade,” he said. “People see through this smokescreen.”

Scientists and environmental advocates have long argued that fossil fuel use has to end as soon as possible, yet that message continues to be ignored. In fact, emissions are expected to rise 14% this decade, if current trends continue. 

But current trends can come to an end. A whole new tomorrow — premised on thriving communities and ecosystems — can be built. The science is settled, the voices of Indigenous leaders are beginning to be heard, and the path toward this new world is increasingly within reach. 

"One of the things that I think is really, really clear in the report is that yes, things are bad, but actually, the future depends on us, not the climate," said Dr Helen Adams, a lead author on the report from King's College, London.

Cities, in particular, are places in need of urgent transformation. Currently, 75% of global emissions come from cities, but that they’re also on the frontlines of climate action, with efforts underway to phase out cars, invest in renewable energy, retrofit buildings, and expand green spaces.

These efforts, if scaled globally, would safeguard food systems, protect water availability, improve global health, and ensure a future with abundant biodiversity.   

“The longer we wait to act the harder this will be,” Dasgupta said. “Nowhere will this be more evident than at Africa’s COP27 summit this November. In Egypt, developed nations will be judged on two fronts: their commitment to rapidly cut emissions and their commitment to delivering far greater financial resources to vulnerable communities to boost resilience and deal with unavoidable climate damages. This unflinching IPCC report sets the stage for COP27 in Egypt, where at long last solidarity and justice will be front and center.”


Defend the Planet

‘The Future Depends on Us’: New IPCC Report Warns Climate Action Window Is Closing Fast

By Joe McCarthy