A man and his children walk through the flooded streets of Venice with water up to their ankles.

No region on Earth has been spared the effects of climate change ©Ihor Serdyukov/Shutterstock

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New climate change report shows that 'nature can be our saviour'

The second of four major climate reports has been released, once again sounding a warning on the impacts that the warming climate is having on every region of Earth.

While the first of these focused on how the climate is being altered by human activity, the second is looking at the effects of climate change on extreme weather, floods and temperature rises, and how humans will need to adapt to these changes.

Even at current levels, human actions are already causing the climate crisis to have devastating impacts on people and natural processes right around the planet, and if actions are not taken now then the outcomes will only get worse.

That is the sobering conclusion of the latest report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The report titled 'Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability' is the work of some 270 scientists from 67 countries, and the most comprehensive assessment of how climate change is already affecting much of the world and its natural systems. This is the second of four reports being produced by the IPCC, which each aim to summarise years' worth of climate data. 

António Guterres, the UN Secretary General, held no punches at the UN press conference after publishing the report.

'I have seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this,' Guterres said. 'Todays IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.

'With fact upon fact, this report reveals how people and the planet are getting clobbered by climate change. Nearly half of humanity is living in the danger zone now, many ecosystems are at the point of no return now, unchecked carbon pollution is forcing the most vulnerable on a frog march to destruction now.

'The facts are undeniable, this abdication of leadership is criminal. The world's biggest polluters are guilty of arson on our only home.'

But the solutions are clear. We need to stop burning fossils fuels and invest more in adaptation and mitigation against climate change. A major part of this should be the large-scale restoration of the natural world and its processes.

If we achieve these objectives by taking action now then we can secure our future on this planet. 

Key points

  • The latest IPCC report is the most comprehensive assessment of the impacts of climate change to date and is the result of the work from some 270 scientists from 67 countries.
  • This is the second of four reports. The third will detail the options for tackling the climate crisis and cut emissions, while the fourth will be a synthesis of the first three.
  • Everywhere is affected, with no region on Earth escaping the impacts of the climate crisis.
  • Between 3.3-3.6 billion, or around half of the world's population, live in areas that are 'highly vulnerable' to climate change.
  • The solutions are here: divesting from fossil fuels and restoring nature should be a priority.

A rapidly changing planet

This latest report does not make for light reading. It is damning in its clarity about how the break down of the climate is already having a significant effect on people from every region on Earth.

Average global temperatures have already risen by 1.1°C and droughts, floods, heatwaves and extreme weather are already having devastating impacts on communities, a trend that is accelerating with increasing damage.

This has resulted in food and water insecurity for millions of people, while coastal communities and those living on low-lying islands are at an ever-increasing risk of losing their homes, lands and livelihoods forever.

It is not only people who are suffering as a result of the climate crisis, as key ecosystems are losing their ability to absorb carbon and natural processes are being disrupted. This can be starkly seen in the mass die-offs of corals and trees that are already occurring in certain parts of the world.

The report says that it is inevitable that this will get worse even if we manage to keep warming to below 1.5°C, but the warning from today is what will happen if we exceed this limit. If the current trajectory of emissions is maintained, then we will struggle to keep warming to below 3°C, and that will result in some 'irreversible' impacts.

Prof Andy Purvis is a research leader at the Museum, who's work focuses on the human impacts on global biodiversity.

'This report is a real wake-up call,' says Andy. 'Not only does it show that we're on a path towards doing huge damage – to our way of life and to nature – but it also shows that much of the damage will be permanent.

'That would be stealing from future generations, but we can still choose a different path.

'Cutting greenhouse gas emissions as fast as we can, and helping nature to take CO2 back out of the atmosphere, would let us pass on to our children a world they can thrive in.'

There are ways to limit these impacts and prevent them from spiralling out of control.

An aerial view of a river winding through lush green fields as trees start to recolonise.

Restoring nature and its natural processes is a key ways to help mitigate the unfolding climate crisis ©Maksim Safaniuk/Shutterstock

The solutions

Inger Andersen is the Under-Secretary-General of the UN and the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme. She is clear about what needs to happen moving forward.

'We are in an emergency, heading to a disaster,' says Andersen. 'We can't keep taking these hits and treating the wounds. We need to soften and slow the blows by cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to cushion the blows by picking up our efforts to adapt to climate change.'

There are clear ways out of this situation. While there is already a degree of climate instability baked into the current projection of global warming, we do have the solutions to prevent it from getting worse and to limit the damage that future impacts will have on people. 

First and foremost, Guterres says, governments need to 'dismantle their coal fleets', while 'those in the private sector still financing coal must be held to account.' This does not, however, let oil and gas exploration off the hook.

'Oil and gas giants and their underwriters are also on notice,' says Guterres. 'You cannot claim to be green while your plans and projects undermine the 2050 net zero target and ignore the measured emission cuts that must occur this decade.

'People see through the smoke screen.'

The other side of this report is more positive. The report clearly shows that investment in adaptation works and saves lives. What needs to happen now is to ramp this up and direct it towards those who are already on the front line of the climate crisis. 

A concrete building in a city covered with green hanging plants.

Bringing nature into our cities will help tackle the climate crisis and improve people's health ©majicphotos/Shutterstock

Part of this adaptation needs to be restoring the natural world. Forests absorb and channel rainwater, coral reefs protect coastal communities from surging waves while soil biodiversity is crucial for the health of plants that provide shade. We know all this, and it needs to be a key part of the solution.

'The best way to do this is to let nature do the job it has spent millions of years perfecting,' says Andersen. 'We need large-scale ecosystem restoration, from ocean to mountaintop.

'We need to bring nature into baking hot cities to keep them cool. We need to conserve mangroves and coral reefs and other natural defenses. We need to protect and restore wetlands for nature and to incorporate wetlands into our cities.

'Backing nature is the best way to adapt to and to slow climate change, while providing jobs and boosting economies. We must start adaptation programmes with nature at their heart. Humanity has spent centuries treating nature like its worst enemy.

'The truth is that nature can be our saviour. But only if we save it first.'

To save the people and the planet there needs to be action, and there is no time left to continue kicking things into the long grass.

'Delay means death,' says Guterres. 'I know that people everywhere are anxious and angry. I am too. Now is the time to turn that rage into action.

'Every fraction of a degree matters, every voice can make a difference, and every second counts.'