'An atlas of human suffering': the latest IPCC report

The scientists of the IPCC (the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) have just published their latest report, on the damage that climate breakdown is causing to humans and ecosystems. They warn that the time left to act is running out.

There could hardly be a worse time for the messages in this report to catch public attention while all eys are on bombed Ukrainian cities and fleeing refugees.

Even for those of us who think we have a good understanding of the dangers of climate change, this report is important, setting out starkly the peril we are in. 

Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General, spoke out at the report's launch:

"I have seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this. Today's IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed leadership."

"The facts are undeniable. This abdication of leadership is criminal. The world's biggest polluters are guilty of arson of our only home.

But according to current commitments, global emissions are set to increase almost 14 per cent over the current decade. That spells catastrophe. It will destroy any chance of keeping 1.5 alive."

So, what does the report say?

The key messages are below, taken from the 36 page Summary for Policymakers and the IPCC's Frequently Asked Questions, which is aimed at the general public. You can also read chapters of the full report, and there's a useful in depth Q&A on the report from Carbon Brief

The world's most eminent scientists and academics in these fields - cautious, fact-checking, balancing evidence - are backing up what climate justice advocates have known and have been saying for years. 

We're running out of time

There is more than a 50% chance that even in the most optimistic scenarios for cutting emissions, global average temperatures will soon rise by 1.5°C or more (compared to temperatures before humans started burning fossil fuels for energy).

If the planet heats up by more than 1.5C, impacts such as wildfires, mass mortality of trees, drying of peatlands, and thawing of permafrost are likely to release additional greenhouse gases, making it even more difficult to lower global temperatures again. Some impacts will be irreversible.

How bad things get depends on what we do now and in the immediate future to cut emissions. It also depends on adaptation - taking action to protect people and ecosystems from risks which are now unavoidable (such as higher sea levels). With every fraction of a degree of global warming the risks and related losses and damages escalate.

Climate change impacts are more severe than estimated in previous IPCC assessments. The last time the IPCC reported on impacts and adaptation was back in 2014, and since then there is more evidence on the harms that climate change is already causing.

Climate change is hurting people now - especially in the Global South

Approximately 3.3 to 3.6 billion people live in contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change 

Climate change is contributing to humanitarian crises. Climate and weather extremes are increasingly driving people to leave their homes, with small island states disproportionately affected. 

Extreme weather events, such as heatwave, wildfires, floods and droughts, are already becoming more frequent and intense [see our own overview of current and recent extreme weather events]

These events have exposed millions of people to acute food insecurity and reduced water security, with the largest impacts observed in parts of Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Small Islands and the Arctic.

Malnutrition has increased in many communities, especially for Indigenous Peoples, small-scale food producers and low-income households, with children, elderly people and pregnant women particularly impacted.

Roughly half of the world’s population currently experience severe water scarcity for at least some part of the year.

Meanwhile, severe rains made more likely by climate change have caused catastrophic flooding in areas such as western Europe, China, Japan, the US, Peru and Brazil since 2014.

Some regions – including parts of India, the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of California and the southern Gulf of Mexico – are already experiencing heat stress conditions approaching the upper limits of labour productivity and human survivability.

Climate change creates conditions hazardous to health such as extreme heat events, the spread of diseases such as malaria into new regions, or air pollution from wildfires. It also affects mental health through increasing temperatures, trauma from weather and climate extreme events and loss of livelihoods and culture

Climate harm can't be separated from inequality

The most vulnerable to climate harms are those living in poverty with limited access to basic services and resources, those in areas with poor governance or violent conflict, and areas where most people's livelihoods depend directly on a stable climate and natural resources, such as smallholder farmers, pastoralists and fishing communities.

Vulnerablity to climate harms today is influenced by historical and ongoing inequalities such as colonialism, especially for many Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

Extreme weather events disproportionately affect vulnerable populations such as the poor, women, children, Indigenous peoples and the elderly.

Climate change is causing severe loss to nature and ecosystems

Climate change has caused substantial damages, and increasingly irreversible losses, in terrestrial, freshwater and coastal and open ocean marine ecosystems 

Some losses are already irreversible, such as the first species extinctions driven by climate change. Other impacts are approaching irreversibility, for example changes in Arctic ecosystems as the permafrost thaws.

Damage from climate change to ecosystems is being exacerbated by other destructive human impacts such as deforestation and pollution. Ecosystem degradation is especially harmful for Indigenous Peoples and local communities who are directly dependent on them to meet basic needs.

These losses get worse the higher we allow temperatures to rise

Globally, between 800 million and 3 billion people are projected to experience chronic water scarcity due to droughts at 2°C warming, and up to approximately 4 billion at 4°C warming.

The percentage of the population exposed to deadly heat stress is projected to increase from today's 30% to 48-76% by the end of the century, depending on future warming levels.

Depending on the rate og global warming and adaptation, between 8 million and 80 million people will suffer from hunger in 2050, with most severely affected populations concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Central America.

In terrestrial ecosystems, 3-14% of species assessed will likely face very high risk of extinction at global warming levels of 1.5°C

Projected climate change, combined with non-climatic drivers, will cause loss and degradation of much of the world’s forests (high confidence), coral reefs and low-lying coastal wetlands

Ecosystems unable to adapt with increasing global warming include some warm water coral reefs, some coastal wetlands, some rainforests, and some polar and mountain ecosystems. Reaching this point will also harm people dependent on these ecosystems.

Future food production is at risk

Climate change will increasingly make it harder to feed people, through events such as droughts, floods and heatwaves, and sea level rise. Global warming will progressively weaken soil health and ecosystem services such as pollination, increase pressure from pests and diseases, and reduce food productivity from ocean ecosystems.

Above 1.5°C, as climate extremes become more frequent there is a risk that they occur simultaneously in major food-producing regions of the world. There is a risk of simultaneous crop losses of maize.

We can protect people from some climate risks - and this needs funding

Even if the world succeeds in cutting emissions rapidly, we'll have already destabilised the climate. This will increase risks, especially for those living in places which are liable to heat extremes, coastal areas, close to seasonal rivers or to ice.

For example, by mid-century, even if we cut emissions, about a billion people in low-lying cities and settlements will be at risk from coastal-specific climate hazards. Many of those will be forced to move to higher ground.

And with 1.5°C of global warming, today's children are projected to experience a nearly four-fold increase in extreme events by 2100

Sea level rise which is now unavoidable will lead to loss of coastal ecosystems, groundwater salinisation, flooding and damages to infrastructure, in turn leading to loss of livelihoods, food and water security, and cultures.

So alongside cutting emissions, we have to invest in climate adaptation to reduce harms.

But at the moment most of the global finance being provided to countries at risk is for emissions reduction. Much more needs to be provided for adaptation. [Climate finance was a key demand for poorer countries at COP26]

And adaptation needs to be done better...

Current adaptation efforts tend to be small, not joined up and not focused on the long term, and sometimes counterproductive.

Good adaptation planning considers equity and justice: who bears the cost and who gets the benefits and who takes part in decision-making - and uses scientific knowledge alongside local knowledge and indigenous knowledge.

As cities grow, there is an opportunity for development which both reduces emissions and is resilient to a changing climate.

The best forms of adaptation have multiple benefits. These include effective flood management which can involve restoring wetlands and rivers, upstream forest management and no build zones. Other examples are planting more trees in cities to provide local cooling, agroecology and ecosystem-based management in fisheries

Resilience can also be improved by investing in health and sanitation and diversifying/decentralising energy generation (e.g., wind, solar, small scale hydroelectric) as well as in early warning systems and disaster risk management.

Loss and damage will mainly hit the poorest countries

It won't be possible to adapt to every harm caused by climate change, especially if we fail to make the rapid emissions cuts needed and temperatures rise even higher. For example above 1.5°C, lack of fresh water could mean that people living on small islands and those dependent on glaciers and snowmelt can no longer adapt.

These losses and damages will mainly be experienced by the poorest in vulnerable developing countries.

There is not currently an adequate system set up to address this.

[One of the key demands at COP26 from countries representing the majority of the world's population was for a new financing facility to compensate for loss and damage. This is resisted by richer countries who fear it will end in liability for trillions of dollars. Because of this, there was negotiation over the wording in the IPCC summary report, which was changed from 'loss and damage' to 'losses and damages']. 

Not everything 'green' is good

Some projects are supposed to reduce climate harms, but cause damage to ecosystems and local communities, including tree planting in unsuitable environments (grasslands, savannas and peatlands), and commercial bioenergy crops. These can threaten water supply, food security and biodiversity.

Nature-based solutions cannot be regarded as an alternative to deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, or a reason to delay these. 

Maintaining the resilience of biodiversity and ecosystem services at a global scale depends on effective and equitable conservation of approximately 30% to 50% of Earth’s land, freshwater and ocean areas, including currently near-natural ecosystems.

[Given concerns about expansion of protected areas leading to exclusion of people ('fortress conservation'), it's important that the full IPCC report says this should not be done in a way which disadvantages those who live in or depend on the most intact ecosystems. It notes that low intensity, sustainable management, including by Indigenous peoples, is an integral part of some protected areas and can support effective adaptation and maintain ecosystem health.

Cooperation, and inclusive decision making, with local communities and Indigenous Peoples, as well as recognition of inherent rights of Indigenous Peoples, is integral to successful forest adaptation in many areas. 


The Summary for Policymakers ends by warning: any delay "will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all."

Photo above of the aftermath of Cyclone Idai in Mozambique. Credit: Denis Onyodi: IFRC/DRK/Climate Centre