IPCC: Limits to Climate Adaptation

“Humans are adapting to climate change, but it’s not even close to enough — and what little is being done becomes less effective as temperatures rise,” writes Huffington Post.  Adaptation has its limits, both hard—no adaptive actions possible—and soft—options  not currently available. And the longer we wait, the harder it will get to adapt.

(This article is part of The Energy Mix coverage of the latest IPCC report released just days ago.It was previously published in the Mix.)

The Limits of Climate Adaptation

With climate dangers coming on faster, ranging wider, and hitting harder than scientists previously expected, and major impacts unavoidable in the immediate future, a United Nations agency report described by observers as “grim”, “harrowing”, and “unflinching” is looking at how humanity can adapt to climate risk, how much climate adaptation can achieve—and how climate justice has moved to the centre of the conversation.

“Climate change is the ultimate injustice,” World Resources Institute President and CEO Ani Dasgupta said in response to the February 28 release from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “People with the fewest resources, those least responsible for the climate crisis, bear the brunt of climate impacts,” with about 3.3 billion people—just over 40% of the world’s population—now living in “highly vulnerable” hotspots.

“If you don’t live in a hotspot, imagine instead a roof blown away, a village well overwhelmed by salt water, a failed crop, a job lost, a meal skipped—all at once, again and again,” she added. “Compounding and cascading climate impacts, combined with poverty and conflict, all conspire to upend billions of lives and livelihoods.”

But yet, “there is hope,” Dasgupta added. “We still have a narrow pathway to avoid the very worst climate impacts. The world’s heaviest emitters must urgently cut emissions, significantly scale up international funding for adaptation to strengthen resilience to climate impacts, and provide funding to vulnerable countries to deal with unavoidable losses and damages. At the same time, governments must quickly turn the many promising adaptation plans into action on the ground to protect food, water, homes, and critical infrastructure.”

A Climate Justice Lens

The report cites three principles of climate justice—distributive justice, procedural justice, and recognition of diverse cultures and perspectives—that can be used to assess different approaches to climate adaptation and weigh the trade-offs that can emerge between community priorities and science-based evidence. It acknowledges that Indigenous and local knowledge “provide important understanding for acting effectively on climate risk and can help diversify knowledge that may enrich adaptation policy and practice.”

In particular, the IPCC says, “Indigenous Peoples have been faced with adaptation challenges for centuries and have developed strategies for resilience in changing environments that can enrich and strengthen current and future adaptation efforts.” The report points to the impact of race, gender, wealth inequalities, and other factors in shaping vulnerability to climate impacts.

The report affirms that the impacts of climate change have become “unequivocal, increasingly apparent, and widespread” since the IPCC released its last full climate assessment in 2014 and 2015. The more than 270 scientists from 67 countries who contributed to the adaptation report identified more than 100 distinct impacts of the climate emergency and broke them into eight broad categories of “overarching risk”:

  • Coastal socio-ecological systems;
  • Terrestrial and ocean ecosystems;
  • Critical physical infrastructure, networks, and services;
  • Living standards;
  • Human health;
  • Food security;
  • Water security;
  • Peace and human mobility.

With greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel production still on the rise, “the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events have adversely affected, or caused the loss of ecosystems including terrestrial, freshwater, ocean, and coastal ecosystems, including tropical coral reefs; reduced food security; contributed to migration and displacement; damaged livelihoods, health and security of people; and increased inequality,” the authors write. Climate impacts also interact with “other significant societal changes that have become more salient” over the last eight years, “including a growing and urbanizing global population; significant inequality and demands for social justice; rapid technological change; continuing poverty, land and water degradation, biodiversity loss; food insecurity; and a global pandemic.”

Connecting Emissions to Warming to Impacts

Another important development since the last IPCC assessment is the rise of attribution models that connect impacts more effectively to a changing climate. Some of that research has been historical, showing with a high degree of confidence “that past climate changes have already caused substantial ecological, evolutionary, and socio-economic impacts.”

“We still have a narrow pathway to avoid the very worst climate impacts. — World Resources Institute President and CEO Ani Dasgupta

Those studies, based on the historical, archaeological, and paleontological record along with paleoclimatic data, indicate that species and ecosystems have only limited ability to adapt to rapid climate change. The research shows marine species at greater risk of extinction due to rapid warming than land-based creatures, land-based plants more likely to survive than animals, and populations shifting from equatorial regions to the poles and from lower to higher altitudes.

The report cites multiple instances where climate variability triggered changes in population size and health, social stability and conflict, and population movements, bringing about the fall of cultures, kingdoms, and empires. And now, “the rather narrow climatic niche favoured by human societies over the last 6,000 years is poised to move on the Earth’s surface at speeds unprecedented in this time span,” the IPCC says, “with consequences for human well-being and migration that could be profound under high-emission scenarios.”

Those rapid shifts “will overturn the long-lasting stability of interactions between humans and domesticated plants and animals as well as challenge the habitability for humans in several world regions.”

So far, many of those climate impacts are still not being detected, due to a shortage of monitoring and “robust” analysis, the IPCC says. But when they’re conducted, “detection and attribution assessments inform the risk assessment by demonstrating the sensitivity of a system to climate change, and they can inform loss and damage estimates, including those involved in potential climate litigation cases. Robust detection and attribution methods now exist,” and “they play a significant role in increasing awareness and willingness to act among decision-makers and the general population.”

An Uneven Response

Against the dire findings in the assessment, the IPCC says “many potential solutions exist, which have not yet been implemented despite the gap between current and adequate levels of adaptation.” While activities in at least 170 countries have produced “multiple benefits” in the effort to adapt to climate change, that progress is “unevenly distributed”, with many initiatives that “prioritize immediate and near-term climate risk reduction which reduces the opportunity for transformational adaptation,” the report warns.

Continues at Below2c