Climate change is splitting the world in two — between those who have the resources to survive faltering food systems, perilous heat and rising seas, and those who don’t, the world’s top climate scientists said in a major report released Monday.
The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) findings present stark evidence that deep divisions between rich and poor nations, and within societies, will determine people’s ability to withstand the worst effects of climate change — with huge implications for global politics.
“I have seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this,” said U.N. Secretary-General Antònio Guterres. He called the findings “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”
The divisions will worsen if countries fail to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, but already present steep challenges. “We’re already in that era,” said Timon McPhearson, director of the Urban Systems Lab at the New School in New York and a report author.
While last year’s report focused on the physical effects of climate change — increased storms and droughts; hotter temperatures; more extreme weather — the new findings zero in on the social, political and economic factors that determine to what degree people will be exposed to and suffer from those effects.
“The physical changes are important, but the harm they cause does not depend on the size of the physical changes, but on the underlying vulnerability of the societies they hit,” said Friederike Otto, an IPCC author and senior lecturer at Imperial College London.
While Spain and Portugal are experiencing one of their worst droughts in memory, and the Western U.S. is in a multi-decade mega-drought, people in those regions remain relatively secure. In Madagascar, by contrast, the failure of two rainy seasons between 2019 and 2021 has triggered a full-blown food crisis.
The report found that between 2010 and 2020, floods, drought and storms killed 15 times as many people in countries categorized as highly vulnerable than in the most secure countries.
“The rise in weather and climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt,” it said.
In every country — rich or poor — the sick, the old, the marginalized and economic strugglers are highly vulnerable to the dangers unleashed by warming. The report said there are between 3.3 billion and 3.6 billion people who fall into this category. Most are in Africa, South Asia, Central and South America, small island states and the Arctic, with those living with “historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism” said to be at risk.
The findings will add fuel to poorer nations’ fight to hold wealthy countries accountable for their contribution to climate change and make good on leaders’ pledges at the COP26 climate summit in November to steer billions of dollars to vulnerable regions.
“Climate justice” is “really the key dimension” of the new report, said lead author and director of Belgium’s Hugo Observatory François Gemenne. “The idea that clearly the most vulnerable people — just about half of humankind — are living in regions that are really highly exposed to climate impacts.”
The report underscores that the countries facing the worst climate impacts are those who contributed the least to global warming — and have the fewest resources to adapt.
“Our means are very modest. But the waves are not modest. The wind is not modest,” said Mohamed Nasheed, former Maldives president and now speaker of the parliament, on a call from the atoll capital of Malé. “But some of us have deeper pockets, and therefore they can fend it off and attend to it.”
But, crucially, the report finds that the worst impacts can be averted through a combination of cutting emissions and countermeasures, known as adaptation, at the local level. The scientists differentiate between “soft” limits to adaptation, where the barriers are political or financial, and “hard” barriers, where the capacity for any kind of resistance ends.
These soft limits are an opportunity, the report notes, and strong political leadership can make a marked difference. As can financial assistance — but the authors said current financial flows are “insufficient for and constrain implementation of adaptation options especially in developing countries.”
The findings dispel any notion that countries can bide their time. “There has been the assumption of, if we cannot control climate change, we just let it go and we adapt,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, a German climatologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute who co-chaired the report. “This is certainly a very illusory approach.”
That comes at a crucial time, as poorer nations seek to ramp up pressure on wealthy governments to deliver on promises to boost their transfer of finance for adaptation measures and open discussions on compensation for vulnerable countries, known as “loss and damage.”
The latter issue is set to dominate talks at COP27 in Egypt later this year, after vulnerable nations won some concessions in Glasgow from long-reluctant nations like the U.S. In a preview to those talks, the phrase “losses and damages” appears throughout the IPCC report but was a subject of intense discussion during the final approval process, according to one person involved in the talks.
Teresa Anderson, climate justice lead for Aid International, said the report demanded “a global system that provides support to climate-vulnerable countries to pick up the pieces and rebuild in the aftermath of climate disasters.” She said COP27 should result in a “funding facility to address loss and damage.”
U.S. Special Climate Envoy John Kerry said: “As we approach COP27, while emissions reductions will continue to be crucial, we must expand and expedite adaptation action.”
See you in court
But with wealthy nations still dragging their feet on climate financing, some of the most vulnerable countries are now looking for options outside the U.N. climate process.
Antigua and Barbuda and Tuvalu last year set up a commission to explore the potential to bring climate lawsuits before international courts.
“I believe there is growing momentum that we need to start a different conversation about climate change through the prism of climate reparations,” said Payam Akhavan, an international human rights lawyer advising the commission. “And I think it’s in that context that the small island states are now turning to international law.”
The IPCC’s reports make for good evidence, he added. “I think that, certainly before an international court, such a document would be highly persuasive.”
The findings are also likely to add weight to legal claims being brought against governments by campaigning lawyers who argue the slow pace of emissions cuts is a violation of citizens’ rights, following some successes in cases in Germany and the Netherlands.
Sarah Mead, a senior legal associate at the Climate Litigation Network, said the findings will be used in pending cases against the governments of Italy, Australia, South Korea, Brazil and Canada.
That throws climate science headlong into the contested political ground of social and environmental justice.
“Certainly this is maybe a political risk,” said lead author Gemenne. “But I would say that science cannot do anything about that.”
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