OPINION: We can still hold the line on climate change impacts

by Stephen Cornelius | @SteveJCornelius | WWF International
Monday, 28 February 2022 09:00 GMT

Aerial view of a mudslide site at Morro da Oficina after pouring rains in Petropolis, Brazil February 17, 2022. Picture taken with a drone. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Many are already here – but a future scaleup isn’t inevitable

Stephen Cornelius is chief advisor on climate change for WWF.

Come Monday, the newest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will set out the most up-to-date science we have on the severe impacts of a warmer world and what that means for people and nature, the future risks we face, and the limits to adaptation.

The process for governments to approve the report summary is nearing its conclusion, and speculation about what is happening behind the scenes is circulating. At times, approval can be glacially slow with every country wanting to see their national circumstances reflected.

We know one thing for sure - the news will not be good. But in this pivotal decade, change can still be made.

With that in mind, what do we know about this latest report?

It is the culmination of three-years of work by several hundred leading scientists from across the globe and will be the collective verdict on the impacts and risks from a rapidly warming world. Coming from the IPCC, it follows last year’s ‘code red for humanity’ examination of the latest physical climate science.

The importance of IPCC reports to underpinning climate action was highlighted by UNEP’s Inger Andersen’s in her session-opening remarks. And indeed, they are critical for policymakers. For example the 2018 Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C influenced the UK’s move to net-zero by 2050.

Among many topics, we can expect a greater emphasis on regional climate change and associated risks, which will lead to a better understanding of why adaptation is crucial. That’s because we are already observing devastating impacts of climate change - so we know that the current adaptation efforts are not enough.

They need to be transformational to succeed plus they need to be supported by rapid and ambitious emissions cuts. This is the first time the IPCC is including this element, signalling where we are on the path to tackling climate change.

Global average temperatures have risen 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, putting us perilously close to the 1.5-degree C ceiling that governments committed to in the Paris Agreement. The impacts are being felt most acutely by the most vulnerable communities and the most fragile ecosystems.

But climate change doesn't only threaten places and communities considered vulnerable. Its impacts are fast being felt in developed countries too.

What policymakers must take away from this latest intelligence is that there are actions available to us that will reduce the vulnerability of natural ecosystems and the infrastructure on which human societies rely.

But we must implement these immediately. If these changes are made without delay, they can still make a difference, before adaptation limits are exceeded.

This will require a considerable uplift in political will, coupled with stronger collective international action. It also requires more finance to support developing countries to adapt to climate impacts, build resilience, cut emissions, and pay for the losses and damages they face.

So, rightly, during this process developing countries are stressing that the burden of responsibility should fall on developed countries who have historically contributed the most to the climate crisis.

As well as boosting climate resilience, rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero is vital to limit global warming to give nature the best chance of recovering, and to minimize the extent of the climate emergency that threatens human societies.

The IPCC report will, no doubt, make for some further negative headlines about the state of the planet. But at WWF, our hope is that it also serves as a clarion call for ourselves and policymakers to redouble our efforts to adapt and build resilience to climate risks, slash our emissions and do all we can to prepare for what lies in store.

The actions taken - or deferred - will be felt for decades to come.