By: Edward R. Carr
Governments have delayed action on climate change for too long, and incremental changes in energy and food production will no longer be enough to create a climate-resilient future, a new analysis from scientists around the world warns.
The world is already seeing harmful impacts from climate change, including extreme storms, heat waves and other changes that have pushed some natural and human systems to the limits of their ability to adapt. As temperatures continue to rise, transformational change is coming to how people live on Earth. Countries can either plan their transformations, or they can face the destructive, often chaotic transformations that will be imposed by the changing climate.
I’m one of the authors of the climate impacts and adaptation report, released Feb. 28, 2022, as part of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report. The increasing alarm in these reports, which review the latest research every six or seven years, echoes what I’ve seen over years of work in international development and climate change.
Climate change is having damaging effects today
Global temperatures have risen 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 F) since 1890. This warming has already produced substantial environmental changes.
Heat waves and extreme downpours have become more severe in many areas. These impacts have already contributed to water scarcity and complex food price spikes, and they can exacerbate health risks for vulnerable populations, such as low-income communities that can’t afford cooling when temperatures rise.
Climate models show these effects will worsen in a warming future as people continue releasing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use, agriculture and other activities, compromising humanity’s ability to adapt.
Where people cannot adapt, lives will be transformed in reactive, expensive ways. For example, research shows that if warming increases beyond 1.5 C (2.7 F) compared to preindustrial times, some small island states will lose much of their area to rising seas. Climate change will transform where their residents live, what they do for a living and indeed the very way they live.
Rising temperatures and increasingly frequent droughts in the breadbaskets of the global food system, such as the American Midwest or Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin, will compromise harvests. In our tightly interconnected global food system, such events create radiating shortages and price spikes across different crops and places.
In the United States, these spikes are generally limited, but can resemble price increases under current inflation. For the most vulnerable Americans, such increases can strain their food security and increase pressure on social safety nets. In less wealthy parts of the world, these spikes can induce profound food crises, social unrest and political instability.
The impacts of a warming future will compromise the achievement of societal goals like ending poverty and malnutrition, in the United States and abroad.