Seven months after the publication of the first part of the report, which set out scientific knowledge on climate change, representatives of 195 countries have approved the second part of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report. In the new paper, researchers have concentrated on climate risks and evaluated the capacity of human societies to adapt to climate change.
What is climate risk? The IPCC defines it as the combination of an “exposure” – for example, whether I live in a flood zone – and a “vulnerability” – my house is constructed on one level and doesn’t have a higher floor where I can take refuge. To build a single-story house in a flood zone therefore constitutes a “risk”. The consequences of these climate risks can take more subtle forms, such as a decline in agricultural yields (I live in a warming region, so I am exposed; and I cultivate heat-sensitive plant varieties,so I am vulnerable), reduced fishing activity because of species migration, or restricted access to potable water due to the deterioration of infrastructure.
The aim of adaptation is to limit climate risk. The term encompasses all measures which can limit the harmful effects of climate change. For example, moving out of a flood zone or cultivating heat-resistant crops are two strategies for adapting to climate change. At the societal level, measures can be more complex: governing bodies can put in place alert systems or build protective structures to shelter infrastructure or ecosystems from climate hazards. They can encourage changes in economic activity, influence the places people choose to live, or develop more “climate-friendly” public policy.
How things stand
In 36 pages, the Summary for Policymakers provides an update on the current knowledge on climate risks. First, the findings: since the IPCC’s fifth assessment report, published in 2014, the consequences of climate change have become more severe and are now easily identifiable. For example, half of the world’s population suffered from water shortages at some point over the last year, partly as a result of climate change and extreme weather events such as floods and droughts.
Wildlife and plant species have also suffered: half of the animals and plants studied have already moved towards more temperate climates (higher latitudes, higher altitudes in mountainous regions, or deeper into the oceans). In urban settings, heatwaves have intensified, and with them spikes in air pollution, with a greater effect on the health of city-dwellers. Climate change has negatively affected livelihoods, particularly of the poorest populations, and certain key infrastructure.
In the years to come, global warming will only amplify these developments, warn scientists, especially as certain social trends reinforce the human impact on the climate. These include an ever-expanding global population that is increasingly urban, a level of consumption that is often not sustainable, …
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