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World leaders urged to learn from pandemic in adapting to climate change

by Megan Rowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 22 January 2021 19:16 GMT

A face mask hangs on a tree branch in Singapore, January 28, 2020. REUTERS/Feline Lim

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The COVID-19 crisis is a 'foretaste' of how accelerating warming could affect our lives, but also offer lessons in how to respond, says chair of UN climate science panel

By Megan Rowling

BARCELONA, Jan 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the world what it is like to go through a dangerous emergency of the kind that could occur if climate change accelerates - and offers lessons on how to respond, the head of the U.N. climate science panel said Friday.

Hoesung Lee, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said the health crisis was "a foretaste of what climate change could do to our society, to nature and to our lives".

"Both climate change and COVID-19 have shown us the risks of an unthinking and rapacious approach to nature and its resources," he told an event at which scientists stressed the importance of adapting to a warming planet.

Lee said leaders should address both crises by investing in a sustainable and resilient recovery.

But he urged them to consider how a green recovery and growing national pledges to become carbon-neutral by mid-century are compatible with a still-rising trend for climate-heating emissions.

"The next few years will be very challenging," Lee added, warning worsening extreme weather and rising seas could test the limits of adaptation.

The South Korean economist said it would be easier for humans to cope with climate pressures if global warming were kept to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times, the lowest goal in the 2015 Paris Agreement, rather than the pact's upper limit of 2C.

"Every half degree of warming matters, every year matters, every choice matters," he told the event by video link.

For example, he noted that at 1.5C, sea level would rise 10cm (4 inches) less than with warming of 2C this century, meaning 10 million fewer people would be exposed to risk in coastal areas.

But even with a 1.5C temperature rise - which the IPCC has said could happen as soon as 2030 - many low-lying small island nations would not be able to adapt, he said.

The world has already warmed by about 1.2C and is currently on track to heat up by at least 3C, the United Nations said this month.

On Friday, more than 3,000 scientists called for a bigger global push to protect people and nature from the effects of a heating planet, even as researchers estimated funding to adapt to climate change has dropped due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The scientists, from about 120 countries, included five Nobel laureates who spoke alongside Lee at the event to launch the statement, ahead of a global adaptation summit organised by the Netherlands next week.

Adaptation action includes everything from expanding green space in cities to prevent floods to moving coastal communities to safer places, capturing rainwater, providing storm warnings and giving farmers weather and crop advice via mobile phones.


Christopher Pissarides and Joseph Stiglitz, both winners of the Nobel prize in economics, urged governments to invest in creating green jobs that could help tackle both post-COVID unemployment and global warming.

Those jobs could be on new projects for climate-resilient infrastructure and agriculture, green buildings or renewable energy, they said.

"Dealing with climate change can be a growth story," said Stiglitz, adding that adaptation efforts would be "crucial" as the world needs to use all the tools at its disposal both to curb rising temperatures and deal with their impacts.

The trillions governments are now preparing to spend in fiscal stimulus must address the health, economic, inequality and climate crises simultaneously, with a focus on helping developing countries, he added.

On Monday, about 20 world leaders will speak at the virtual adaptation summit, focused on finding solutions to adapt to the effects of climate change, alongside the heads of the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund.

The United States will be represented by Joe Biden's new special climate envoy John Kerry, after the U.S. president moved quickly to take his country back into the Paris Agreement.

The Dutch government said the summit would launch a "broad adaptation action agenda" with practical climate solutions and plans for the next decade.

Ahead of the virtual meeting, the Youth Adaptation Network, a global platform, issued a call, developed by hundreds of thousands of young people in 120 countries, for more awareness about the need to adapt and more adaptation education and jobs.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last month a "breakthrough" is needed on adaptation and resilience efforts, which lack funding and have struggled to keep pace with worsening heatwaves, wildfires, floods, droughts and storms.

At Friday's event, his predecessor Ban Ki-moon said people often talked about climate change as if it were a war that could be won. "This is a fallacy," he said.

"We are living with the enemy which is all around us. In many parts of the world, the best we can hope for is containment by building resilience, using resources more carefully and by ensuring we do not make the problems worse," he added.

Read more:

Step up adaptation to climate change now or risk 'enormous toll', scientists warn

Governments urged to use COVID-19 stimulus to adapt to climate threats

Code red: UN calls for urgent shift to planet-friendly development

(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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