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‘An atlas of human suffering’ - UN report issues stark warning on climate change

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Climate change is causing widespread loss and damage to lives, livelihoods, homes and natural habitats, with ever more severe effects to come, the UN has said.

Already some of the impacts of global warming are irreversible, as nature and humans are pushed to the limits of their ability to adapt to rising temperatures, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said.

In the second part of its report, released today, comprising a global assessment of climate science, the UN body looked at the impacts of, and vulnerabilities to, climate change and adaptation to global warming.

The first part of the report, labelled a “code red for humanity” when it was published in August 2021 ahead of COP26, examined the physical basis of climate change. The third part will set out solutions to the crisis when it is published later this year.

The study is the sixth such assessment the UN body has conducted, with the most recent one being back in 2013/14.

The IPCC has issued a “dire warning” over the grave and mounting threat that global warming poses to physical and mental health, cities and coastal communities, food and water supplies, and wildlife across the world.

Any further delays to curb greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to what is already inevitable climate change would mean humanity will miss the “brief and rapidly closing window” to secure a liveable and sustainable future, the report warns.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the report as “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” warning that nearly half of humanity is in the climate danger zone and many ecosystems are at the point of no return.

“With fact upon fact, this report reveals how people and the planet are getting clobbered by climate change,” Guterres said, pointedly referring to what he described as a “criminal” abdication of leadership, and adding “the world’s biggest polluters are guilty of arson of our only home.” He renewed the call for an end to fossil fuel use and a shift to renewables, as well as scaling-up of investment in efforts to adapt to the changing climate.

The IPCC assessment has been released after its summary was approved line-by-line in a process involving representatives of 195 governments and scientists, which overran by a day as delegates continued to haggle over the text.

The published report looks at the existing and future effects of climate change, efforts and limits to adapt to rising temperatures and vulnerable communities and natural systems.

It finds that climate change caused by humans has led to increasing heat and heatwaves; rising sea levels; floods; wildfires; heatwaves and drought, causing death, food and water scarcity, and migration.

Health impacts have been felt worldwide: people have died and suffered illness from extreme heat; diseases have emerged in new areas; there has been an increase in cholera, and a worsening of mental health, with trauma inflicted by floods, storms and loss of livelihoods.

Global warming has caused substantial damage and increasingly irreversible losses to natural systems, such as mass die-offs of corals and trees and the first climate-driven species extinctions.

Different weather extremes are happening at the same time, causing “cascading” effects that are increasingly hard to manage.

The report also warns of the closeness of irreversible “tipping points,” where melting of ice sheets in Antarctica, the thawing of permanently frozen areas of the Arctic, or the loss of Amazon rainforest become unstoppable.

Some 3.3 billion to 3.6 billion people live in situations where they are highly vulnerable to climate change, the report warns.

The consequences of global warming, which has reached 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels already, are not felt evenly around the world, with countries in sub-Saharan Africa and small island states among the most at risk.

However, people in the UK and Europe also face the negative impact of coastal and inland flooding; heat extremes; damage to habitats; water scarcity and loss of crop production, as well as knock-on effects on food supplies and prices.

There will be “unavoidable increases” in climate hazards in the next two decades with global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, cautions the bleak 35-page summary produced for policymakers.

Letting temperatures climb above that, even temporarily, will lead to additional severe impacts, with the risks increasing more quickly at lower temperatures than previously thought.

Accelerating efforts to adapt to climate change - which are currently patchy and insufficient - is urgently needed.

The report warns there are limits to how much people and nature can cope with, becoming more limited at 1.5°C of warming, and impossible in some regions at 2°C, making curbing emissions to limit temperature rises also crucial.

The report, which comes just over 100 days after world leaders agreed new efforts to limit warming and to deliver finance for adaptation at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, calls for adequate funding to help those most at risk.

Safeguarding nature - including conserving 30-50 per cent of the world’s land, freshwater and sea habitat - will reduce carbon and climate impacts, as well as protecting wildlife and the natural systems people rely on for food and water.

The report sets out what can be done to adapt to rising temperatures, from restoring wetlands and avoiding building in flood plains, to planting more trees in cities for cooling, and nature-friendly farming and more plant-based diets to reduce pressure on land.

The report also warns against “maladaptation” – human efforts to adapt, such as hard sea walls which can cause more problems - and geoengineering schemes that could cause a host of new risks.

Hans-Otto Portner, co-chairman of the team that produced the report, said: “The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet.

“Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.”

IPCC chairman Hoesung Lee said: “This report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction. It shows that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet.

“It emphasises the urgency of immediate and more ambitious action to address climate risks. Half measures are no longer an option.”

Responding to the IPCC report, Alok Sharma, the COP26 conference president, warned: “We will witness considerable changes in our lifetime and, without ambitious action, millions across the planet could no longer have anywhere to call home.

“Yet there is hope. The ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’, agreed by almost 200 countries at COP26, is built on science and today’s report underscores the urgency with which we must prepare for climate change and address a new reality of loss and damage, especially in the world’s most climate vulnerable communities.

“The next decade is crucial. We have a window of opportunity to cut emissions, adapt to a more dangerous climate and build for a secure and clean future which turns the commitments made at COP26 into transformative action.”

However, Nushrat Chowdhury, Christian Aid’s climate justice adviser, who is based in Bangladesh, sounded a note of caution, saying: “This report is a wake-up call to the world that those on the front lines of this crisis need much greater support if they are going to cope with climate impacts they have not caused.”

She said that the UK, which continues to hold the UN climate talks presidency until November, has a vital role in leading efforts to tackle global warming.

“It is now vital that the UK Government spearhead efforts to mobilise much greater funding to help the climate-vulnerable adapt and to set up a fund to deal with the permanent loss and damage which cannot be adapted to”.

Dr Stephen Cornelius, from WWF, said the drought and searing heat, destruction of habitats, species extinction and stronger storms and massive floods were “not a list of scenes in an apocalyptic film,” but the content of an authoritative scientific report detailing the climate impacts on the planet.

“Our planet is in peril and it’s being pushed to – and sometimes beyond – its limits, with the most vulnerable people and ecosystems suffering the most.

“Nature can be our ally and a crucial buffer, if we choose to restore and protect it,” he said, urging urged world leaders to heed the warnings in the report, to increase sustainable investment and to slash emissions.

While this latest IPCC report does not look at individual countries, it spells out the risks to the European region as a whole, with more heatwaves, coastal flooding and losses to crops.

The UK is already feeling the effects of climate change and the impacts will worsen without action to adapt at home and cut emissions as part of global efforts.

Other studies have shown how the UK is already being adversely affected by climate change in a number of ways, from the increased risk of downpours that cause flooding in British towns, villages and cities – as seen along the River Severn only last week - to heatwaves and record-breaking high temperatures becoming more frequent, long-lasting and intense.

Climate change is even making Britain’s Spring flowers bloom a month earlier, with knock-on effects for birds, insects and whole ecosystems, research has shown.

The IPCC report warns the number of deaths and people at risk of heat stress will increase two to threefold across Europe if temperatures rise by 3°C compared with limiting warming to 1.5°C.

Warming will shrink the habitats available for land and marine wildlife and irreversibly change their make-up - a situation that will become increasingly severe above 2°C - while fire-prone areas are projected to expand across Europe.

Substantial agricultural production losses are projected for most European areas over the 21st century, which will not be offset by gains in Northern Europe, and the use of irrigation will be increasingly limited by a lack of water.

The number of people hit by heavy rain and river flooding and the costs of resulting damage could double if temperatures climb to 3°C above pre-industrial levels.

Coastal flood damage is projected to increase at least 10-fold by the end of the 21st century -  or even more and earlier if we continue with current levels of effort to adapt and curb emissions.

Sea-level rise represents “an existential threat” for coastal communities and their cultural heritage, particularly in the long term beyond 2100, the IPCC report warns.

Dr Peter Alexander of the University of Edinburgh, lead author of the report’s chapter on Europe, said there are big variations globally in the impacts on food and agriculture, with warmer parts of the world seeing bigger effects.

He warned: “Even where there isn’t direct impact seen to UK agricultural production that’s particularly substantial, we are part of a global food system.

“We import close to half the food we consume within the UK and, if the rest of the world’s agriculture is being impacted by climate change, we’re going to effectively import those impacts to the UK, largely through potentially higher food prices.”

Emma Howard Boyd, chairwoman of the Environment Agency, described the immediate future as “adapt or die”, adding that “To save both lives and livelihoods, we all need to plan, adapt and thrive.”

She called for a review to assess the true cost of climate impacts in the UK and the value of investing public and private money in making the country resilient to rising temperatures.

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