'Atlas of human suffering': Stark warning to humanity issued in major climate change report

28 February 2022, 15:08

The report warns some of the impacts of climate change are already irreversible
The report warns some of the impacts of climate change are already irreversible. Picture: Alamy

By Daisy Stephens

The Secretary-General for the UN has warned of "an atlas of human suffering" after a new climate change report said humanity may miss a "brief and rapidly closing window" to secure a liveable and sustainable future.

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The landmark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said climate change was already causing widespread loss and damage to lives, livelihoods, homes and natural habitats - and that some of the impacts were already irreversible.

It also warned more severe effects were still to come as nature and humans are pushed to the limits of their ability to adapt to rising temperatures.

The "dire warning" highlighted the grave and mounting threat global warming poses to physical and mental health, cities and coastal communities, food and water supplies, and wildlife across the world - and said any further delays to curb emissions and adapt mean humanity will miss a "brief and rapidly closing window" to secure a liveable future.

The assessment is the second in a series of three reports from the IPCC in the latest review of climate science, which take place every seven years or so for governments.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the report as "an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership", warning that nearly half of humanity is in the climate danger zone and many ecosystems are at the point of no return.

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Hans-Otto Portner, co-chairman of the team that produced the report, said: "The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet.

"Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future."

IPCC chairman Hoesung Lee said: "This report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction.

"It shows that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet."

He added: "It emphasises the urgency of immediate and more ambitious action to address climate risks.

"Half measures are no longer an option."

The report looks at the existing and future effects of climate change, efforts and limits to adapt to rising temperatures and vulnerable communities and natural systems.

It finds that climate change caused by humans has led to increasing heat and heatwaves, rising sea levels, floods, wildfires, heatwaves and drought, causing death, food and water scarcity, and migration.

Health impacts have been felt worldwide: people have died and suffered illness from extreme heat, diseases have emerged in new areas, there has been an increase in cholera, and worsening mental health, with trauma inflicted by floods, storms and loss of livelihoods.

Global warming has caused substantial damage and increasingly irreversible losses to natural systems, such as mass die-offs of corals and trees, and the first climate-driven species extinctions.

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Different weather extremes are happening at the same time, causing "cascading" effects that are increasingly hard to manage.

The report also warns of the closeness of irreversible "tipping points" where melting of ice sheets in Antarctica, thawing of permanently frozen areas of the Arctic, or the loss of Amazon rainforest become unstoppable.

Some 3.3 billion to 3.6 billion people live in situations where they are highly vulnerable to climate change, the report warns.

The consequences of global warming, which has reached 1.1C above pre-industrial levels already, are not felt evenly around the world, with countries in sub-Saharan Africa and small island states among the most at risk.

But even in the UK and Europe people face coastal and inland flooding, heat extremes, damage to habitats, water scarcity and loss of crop production, as well as knock-on effects on food supplies and prices.

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There will be "unavoidable increases" in climate hazards in the next two decades with global warming of 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, the bleak 35-page summary for policymakers says.

Letting temperatures climb above that, even temporarily, will lead to additional severe impacts, with the risks increasing more quickly at lower temperatures than previously thought.

Accelerating efforts to adapt to climate change - which are currently patchy and insufficient - is urgently needed.

But the report warns there are limits to how much people and nature can cope with, becoming more limited at 1.5C of warming, and impossible in some regions at 2C, making curbing emissions to limit temperature rises also crucial.

The report was released after its summary was approved line by line in a process involving representatives of 195 governments and scientists, which overran by a day as delegates continued to haggle over the text.

Its publication comes just over 100 days after world leaders agreed new efforts to limit warming and to deliver finance for adaptation at the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, calls for adequate funding to help those most at risk.

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Safeguarding nature, including conserving 30-50 per cent of the world's land, freshwater and sea habitat, will reduce carbon and climate impacts, as well as protecting wildlife and the natural systems people rely on for food and water.

The report sets out what can be done to adapt to rising temperatures, from restoring wetlands and avoiding building in flood plains, to planting more trees in cities for cooling, and nature-friendly farming and more plant-based diets to reduce pressure on land.

But it warns against "maladaptation" - efforts to adapt such as hard sea walls which can cause more problems - and geoengineering schemes that could cause a host of new risks.