Climate change will fundamentally reshape life on Earth in the coming decades, even if humans can control greenhouse gas emissions, according to a landmark draft report from the United Nations’ (UN) climate science advisors.
Species extinction, more widespread diseases, extreme heat, ecosystem collapse, cities destroyed by rising seas and other devastating climate impacts are accelerating and will become obvious in less than thirty years.
The consequences of decades of uncontrolled carbon pollution are unavoidable in the short term, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says in a draft report obtained by AFP.
“The worst is yet to come, affecting our children’s and grandchildren’s lives much more than our own,” the report says.
By far the most comprehensive catalogue ever put together of how climate change is affecting our world, the report reads like a 4,000-page accusation of humanity’s leadership of the planet.
The consequences of human’s wrong-doings are also deeply unfair: those least responsible for global warming will suffer disproportionately, the report makes clear.
The document, designed to influence critical policy decisions, is not scheduled for release until February 2022. Some scientists say that’s too late for important UN summits this year on climate, biodiversity, and food systems.
The report shows that while we emit record amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we are undermining the capacity of forests and oceans to absorb them.
We’re destroying our greatest natural allies in the fight against global warming. It warns that previous significant climate shocks dramatically changed the environment and wiped out most species.
With 1.1 degrees Celsius of warming clocked so far, the climate is already changing.
A decade ago, scientists believed that limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius above mid-19th century levels would be enough to safeguard our future.
That goal is part of the 2015 Paris Agreement, adopted by nearly 200 nations who vowed to collectively cap warming at “well below” two degrees Celsius — and 1.5 degrees if possible.
On current trends, we’re heading for three degrees Celsius at best.
Earlier models predicted we were not likely to see Earth-altering climate change before 2100. But the UN draft report says that prolonged warming even beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius could produce “progressively serious, centuries’ long and, in some cases, irreversible consequences”.
Last month, the World Meteorological Organization projected a 40 percent chance that Earth will cross the 1.5-degree limit for at least one year by 2026.
“Even at 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, conditions will change beyond many organisms’ ability to adapt,” the report notes. For some plants and animals, it could be too late. Coral reefs are one example.
A warming world has also increased the amount and length of fire seasons. Bushfires worldwide have already killed billions of animals.
In 2050, coastal cities on the “frontline” of the climate crisis will see hundreds of millions of people at risk from floods and increasingly frequent storms made more deadly by rising seas.
Some 350 million more people living in urban areas will be exposed to water scarcity from severe droughts at 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming — 410 million at two degrees Celsius.
That extra half-a-degree will also mean 420 million more people exposed to extreme and potentially lethal heatwaves.
Recent research has shown that warming of two degrees Celsius could push the melting of ice sheets atop Greenland and the West Antarctic past a point of no return. Other tipping points could see the Amazon morph from tropical forest to savannah.
In the more immediate future, some regions — eastern Brazil, Southeast Asia, the Mediterranean, central China — and coastlines almost everywhere could be battered by multiple climate calamities at once: drought, heatwaves, cyclones, wildfires, flooding.
But global warming impacts are also amplified by all the other ways that humanity has exhausted Earth.
These include “losses of habitat and resilience, over-exploitation, water extraction, pollution, invasive non-native species and dispersal of pests and diseases,” the report says.
There is very little good news in the report, but the IPCC stresses that much can be done to avoid worst-case scenarios and prepare for impacts that can no longer be averted.
Conservation and restoration of so-called blue carbon ecosystems — kelp and mangrove forests, for example — enhance carbon stocks and protect against storm surges, as well as providing wildlife habitats, coastal livelihoods and food security.
Transitioning to more plant-based diets could also reduce food-related emissions as much as 70 percent by 2050. But simply buying a Tesla or planting billions of trees to offset business-as-usual isn’t going to cut it, the report warns.
“We need transformational change operating on processes and behaviours at all levels: individual, communities, business, institutions and governments,” it says. “We must redefine our way of life and consumption.”
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