By Malee Oot April 5, 2014
The latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) paints a bleak picture of the impact global warming will continue to have on humankind. Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, was released Monday after a final approval session in Yokohama, Japan.
The new report is by far the most damning publication put forward by the IPCC to date. And even more alarming, this latest assessment report is also the most accurate. The three-year cumulative effort of more than 309 lead authors, 436 additional contributing authors, and 1,729 expert government reviewers, the level of scientific detail in this report is staggering, in large part due to the exponential increase in the availability of scientific literature on global warming since the release of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment report in 2007.
Many of the findings in the report are hardly shocking or unexpected. In short, global climate change is hitting us where it hurts, crippling the ecological systems vital to sustaining life on earth.
“Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change,” said IPCC chairman Dr. Rajendra Pachauri at the outset of Monday’s press conference coinciding with the release of the fifth assessment report.
One of the most alarming findings from the IPCC’s latest assessment report is the implications global climate change will have for food security. There is no doubt that climate change is already affecting food production around the world—but according to the IPCC, things are only going to get worse.
“The main way that most people will experience climate change is through the impact on food: the food they eat, the price they pay for it, and the availability of the choice they have,” Tim Gore, head of food policy and climate change for Oxfam told The Guardian.
At the most basic level, food production will not be able to keep up with a growing population. For instance, even a temperature increase of 1˚ C (above pre-industrial temperature levels) in tropical and temperate regions has a negative impact on the yield of staple crops like wheat, rice, and maize. Median global crop yields could drop by up to 2% each decade. Meanwhile, as populations on earth continue to grow, demand for food is expected to increase by as much as 14% each decade until 2050.
As food availability decreases, prices will sky rocket. Changes in precipitation levels will also serve to further exacerbate the impact of rising temperatures on agricultural production. And the report predicts these increases in food prices will be drastic—and devastating, food prices could potentially increase by as much as 84%.
The primary message from the IPCC in this fifth assessment report is that the impacts of climate change are pervasive. But, the report also makes the distinct point that rural and urban poor will be undoubtedly be hardest hit by climate change. Increased climactic variability triggered by global climate change has a profound influence on the life and livelihood of people around the world already living hand to mouth, acting to further intensify existing social inequalities.
And, as the impacts of global climate change continue to intensify, the fifth assessment report predicts a whole new population of poor could emerge by the end of this century, in places today considered middle or high-income countries. Triggers like plummeting agricultural yields could over time cause stable economies to slip, and new “hotspots of hunger” to be formed.
In many cases, severe threats to food security also generate concern about human security. In this report the message is extremely direct, stating that “Human security will be progressively threatened as the climate changes.” The report proceeds to make a number of more specific predictions about the potential for conflict exacerbated by climactic variability, including migrations triggered by resource scarcity and loss of ecosystem services.
And as the IPCC report also points out, a whole new host of threats to human security will emerge, on a scale previously unseen. Sea level rise has the potential to displace significant numbers of people in low-lying coastal areas and small island states, forcing massive migrations. “Sea-level rise poses one of the most widely recognized climate change threats to low-lying coastal areas on islands and atolls. It is virtually certain that global mean sea-level rise rates are accelerating.”
Arguably one of the most chilling sections is the discussion of the impact of climate change on terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems. The report makes a dire prediction, a less than subtle warning to humankind, that “A large fraction of terrestrial and freshwater species face increased extinction risk under projected climate change during and beyond the 21st century, especially as climate change interacts with other pressures, such as habitat modification, over-exploitation, pollution and invasive species.”
The report's tone sparked immediate criticism. One of the original coauthors, Richard Tol, an “economist of climate change,” pulled out while the report was still in draft, criticizing the assessment for being “alarmist.” But, in defense of the IPCC, the data is alarming, and when accurately presented and synthesized, becomes even more troubling.
At the other end of the spectrum, many of the contributors to the IPCC’s fifth assessment are hopeful the tone will help spur critical action on adaptation and mitigation. Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II, Chris Field, said in a press release Monday, “Climate-change adaptation is not an exotic agenda that has never been tried. Governments, firms, and communities around the world are building experience with adaptation.”
But, even more important than scrambling to adapt to the crisis we have created, is mitigating the scale of the impact we are having on the planet. Bluntly, according IPCC report, “Mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions can substantially reduce risks of climate change in the second half of the 21st century.” Even more importantly, as the fifth assessment points out, mitigation reduces both the rate and magnitude of global warming, providing more time to develop and implement adaptation plans. Essentially, mitigating our greenhouse gas emissions both buys us more time to act, and reduces the scale of the damage done.
Co-chair of IPCC Working Group II Vicente Barros summed up the causal relationship in an IPCC press release Monday, “We live in an era of man-made climate change. In many cases, we are not prepared for the climate-related risks that we already face. Investments in better preparation can pay dividends both for the present and for the future.”
Live Coverage of the Press Conference:
IPCC Press Release 3/31/14