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Reflections on the IPCC WGII report- A.R. Siders

PLOS Climate Academic Editor A.R. Siders reflects on the the key messages contained in the IPCC WGII AR6 report, released this week. Watch out for more reaction to the latest WG reports in the days and weeks ahead here on the Latitude blog.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group 2 released its summary for policymakers and full draft report this past Monday.  Working Group 1 reviewed the science underpinning global climate change and Working Group 3, whose report will be released later this year, will focus on mitigating climate change.  Working Group 2 focuses on the consequences of climate change and the ability of humans and ecosystems to adapt. Their report contains a grim but – in the right light – motivating case for why the world needs urgent, ambitious adaptation and mitigation.

If you haven’t had the chance the read the 35-page summary or 3675-page report, my view – which is personal, unofficial, and certainly not sanctioned by global diplomats, unlike the summary for policymakers – is that these are the key takeaways:

  • Climate change is already causing widespread suffering and irreversible loss;
  • Harms are uneven due to historical and ongoing systems of injustice such as colonialism and marginalization;
  • Fundamental shifts in social, economic, and ecological systems will be needed to limit future losses; These shifts must prioritize justice to avoid perpetuating inequalities or causing worse harms than the ones they were intended to redress;
  • Adaptation will not be able to avoid all the harms caused by climate change; already systems are reaching soft and hard limits of adaptation; the more the climate changes, the more harms will be unavoidable and the more widespread and extreme these harms will be;
  • Humans must take immediate and decisive action both to limit future climate change and to adapt to the changes that have already occurred.

The summary for policymakers (SPM) is very clear on this last point:

“The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”

The report is almost as explicit when it states: “The extent and magnitude of climate change impacts are larger than estimated in previous assessments”; climate change “has caused widespread adverse impacts” and “some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt”; “challenges causing high vulnerability are influenced by historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism”; and “Adaptation does not prevent all losses and damages, even with effective adaptation and before reaching soft and hard limits.” The SPM uses current harms, such as the fact that half the world’s population currently experiences severe water scarcity or that all regions have experienced increased mortality due to extreme heat events, to emphasize that adaptation and mitigation are needed now – not in the distant future.

One takeaway on my list that might require a bit more reading between the lines is the notion that future adaptation will need to involve transformation – to change the “fundamental” attributes of human systems.  The SPM notes potential benefits of transformation. Indeed, it says the WG2 Report has “a particular focus on transformation and system transitions” and that “transitions make possible the adaptation required for high levels of human health and wellbeing, economic and social resilience, ecosystem health, and planetary health”.  It stops short, however, of explicitly saying that future adaptation will require transformation.

This may indicate caution.  Since most global adaptation to date has been incremental, there is a limited evidence base on transformative adaptation. Some scholars argue that incremental changes may add up to transformation over time, so nonlinear transformation – the type that most often comes to mind when talking about incremental vs. transformative adaptation – may be unnecessary. Research has documented transformative adaptations that failed to transform equitably and have even exacerbated inequalities. There are serious concerns about how transformation occurs: what is lost and what is gained when a system transforms, how those gains and losses are distributed, and who decides.  

Despite these concerns, the logic of the SPM suggests that, in the future, more adaptations will need to be transformative and the degree of transformation may need to increase. Rather than, say, increase the number of farms using irrigation, or even improve the type of irrigation, the entire agricultural system may need to transform the way food is produced, transported, distributed, and consumed. Actors across the globe are adapting, but most of these adaptations appear to be on the order of a farmer using irrigation – effective in the short-term, but an incremental change to business-as-usual and potentially ineffective against future climate. Indeed, the SPM warns that even effective adaptation efforts “will decrease with increasing warming.” Despite widespread adaptation already occurring, the world is experiencing dramatic harms and the gap between what is being done and what will be needed is growing. Addressing that gap is not just a matter of scaling up current efforts. It is also a matter of changing the way we adapt.

Climate change is making hazards more severe and more frequent, but it is also making them “increasingly complex and difficult to manage.” Adaptation efforts, and governance and management systems involved in adaptation, will need to consider compound and cascading risks and work across silos and boundaries (whether local or transnational). New technologies and approaches like solar radiation management will raise new governance challenges. “Integrated, multi-sectoral solutions that address social inequities, differentiate response based on climate risk and cut across systems” are recommended, but these types of adaptations have challenges. The SPM finds that already some human systems are encountering soft limits – constraints that hinder their ability to adapt. Overcoming those limits may require not only transformative adaptation but transformations in social systems – governance, management, institutions, finance, norms – to address the frequency, severity, and complexity of future climate risks.

Social systems may also need to transform to address climate justice. “Between 2010-2020, human mortality from floods, droughts and storms was 15 times higher in highly vulnerable regions, compared to regions with very low vulnerability”. High vulnerability has been shaped by systems of injustice such as historical and ongoing colonialism and marginalization. Undoing these systems of inequity and redressing the harms they have caused is likely to require social systems with different “fundamental attributes” than the ones we have today, the ones that created these inequities. This means transformation.

It is entirely possible that incremental changes could achieve transformation over time. The question is whether we have time, whether these incremental, additive shifts can be achieved quickly enough to match the rapidly increasing effects of climate change. And the message of the SPM appears to be: we do not. The biggest takeaway of the WG2 SPM, for me, then, is not just that climate change is and will continue to cause widespread harm. It is that we – humans – need to drastically change our approach to adaptation and embrace bold, transformative change. We must prioritize equity and inclusion while doing so, but we no longer have time to pursue anything less than ambitious and transformative adaptation.

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