After decades of failure to stop emissions rising, a landmark new report released Monday from the United Nations’ climate-science body warns that the impacts of climate change are here and now humans need to accelerate efforts to adapt.
“It is unequivocal that climate change has already disrupted human and natural systems,” states the report’s summary for policymakers.
It will be crucial to see if the world is able to move quickly enough to make plans for adapting to this complex problem over the next decade. “Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all,” the report says.
The report, produced by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), comes as part of the agency’s most comprehensive assessment on climate change since 2014. It’s the second of three planned reports, the first of which was released in August 2021 and made clear the world was on track to surpass 1.5°C of warming, a threshold widely considered likely to trigger catastrophic and irreversible effects.
Climate policy is typically divided into two types by policymakers: mitigation and adaptation. While mitigation covers all actions that reduce future emissions, adaptation is about how we adapt to the changing climate. For decades, mitigation has received the lion’s share of attention from scientists, activists, and policymakers—and funding—for an obvious reason: more mitigation means less need for adaptation down the road.
This is evident in the new IPCC Report. “For too long, there was concern among many in the climate community that highlighting the acute need for investment in adaptation would undermine the importance of reducing emissions,” says Nat Keohane, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. This “report should put that debate to rest for good.” The truth is we need both—and urgently.
The clear damage already done to natural and human ecosystems is the reason for this urgency. Coral reefs and forested areas, including in the Amazon, are among the ecosystems that face the threat of catastrophic climate tipping points—after which the impacts are irreversible—without a clear pathway to restoration. Because these ecosystems hold carbon which would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, it shapes our civilization.
According to the report, humans can adapt better than natural ecosystems. However, many communities are struggling to maintain human existence. Adaptation cannot prevent all losses and damages—there are some negative impacts of climate that the world simply will not be able to prevent. Not every community can adapt and respond in the same manner. “There are limits to adaptation,” says Adelle Thomas, a researcher at Climate Analytics and one of the new IPCC report’s many contributing authors. “We are already finding that while some people and places are adapting, they are being pushed beyond their abilities to adapt.”
The most vulnerable include those living along low-lying coastlines like those in Australasia and those who live on small islands, such as Micronesia. Smallholder farmers from around the world are also among them. Investments in adaptation projects will not only help protect against climate-related impacts but also increase agricultural productivity, provide food security, safeguard livelihoods, and protect health and well being. But to do this successfully, more financing is needed to tackle what the report calls a growing “adaptation gap” between those who can afford to invest in sometimes costly adaptation projects and those who may not be able to.
And, if not done properly, “maladaptation” risks locking communities into even greater climate vulnerability, at an even higher cost, further exacerbating existing inequalities. “The science could not be more clear,” says Tina Stege, climate envoy for the Marshall Islands. “Failing to adapt to this crisis will cost lives. It will be costly for people to not provide climate financing that is fair and accessible. Lifelong dependence upon fossil fuels can lead to death. With the consequences of inaction spelled out so clearly, yet again, a failure to act is inhuman and unconscionable.”