Global warming threatens three billion people

04 March 2022 11:43

The “assessment reports” of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been used in the past to take stock of scientific extrapolations, model results, and similar studies relating to probable and frightening futures. The sixth and final evaluation report, which comes eight years after the previous one, shows how much things have happened recently. It appears for the first time as a document written in full action, as a real-time analysis of an increasingly unsettling present.

The first part of this new report, the one dealing with the state of the physical science of the system and climate change, was released in August. The second (out of three, with a summary expected later) arrived on February 28th. It reports on the effects of those climate changes, and on adaptation and vulnerability to them. Like the first, this second part is the work of hundreds of scholars who have sifted through hundreds of peer-reviewed articles and other materials, and whose work has since been reviewed by colleagues and state authorities. Researchers and state officials then came together to agree on a text that summarized their findings and recommendations.

The report as a whole represents a huge, broad and inevitably inconstant question. As Nat Keohane, director of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a US research institute, said: “At its most basic level, the report simply confirms what we already know: the harms of climate change are already among us.” But what is known about the current crisis must be reiterated.

Systems at the limit of capacity
The summary clearly says things are getting worse, with observed increases in extreme temperatures on land and in the seas, torrential rains, droughts and favorable weather conditions for fires. Changes are affecting people, animals and plants, with widespread shifts in the timing of the seasons.

Half of the species the scientists have looked at are moving to higher latitudes and / or higher altitudes in search of cooler temperatures (although there may be some distortion – it is easier to collect data for species that already exist. believe they are in motion than for the others). With temperatures currently between 1.1 and 1.3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, some natural systems are nearing or surpassing the limit of their adaptability. Some coral reefs, rainforests, coastal wetlands, and polar and mountain ecosystems are about to reach their “extreme limits” of endurance.

Some development and climate adaptation efforts, it is said, have reduced vulnerability to climate change

The plants that humans use for food, tissue and other purposes are also under pressure. The report notes with some confidence that the increases in agricultural productivity recorded over the past fifty years are lower than those that would have been achieved without climate change.

The changes are not all slow and gradual. Where highly vulnerable populations face dangers such as extreme weather conditions, climate change fuels humanitarian crises. In all regions of the world, people are displaced for this reason, the report said, which highlights the worsening food insecurity and malnutrition caused by droughts and floods in Africa and Latin America. The report does not note, however, that this had a major impact on violent conflicts.

Immediate and long-term risks
Some things could have been worse. Some development and climate adaptation efforts, it is said, have reduced vulnerability to climate change, and greater planning of adaptation activities (and implementation of those plans) is seen everywhere. Some of these programs also bring benefits that go beyond mitigating climate risk.

Despite everything, however, the effects of climate change are increasing at a rate that exceeds the progress made in adaptation. In the short term – perhaps over the next few decades – trying to narrow this growing gap appears to be the most important task. The point is that an environment’s ability to adapt, in terms of short-term risk, has a faster impact than decreasing emissions.

Short-term measures to adapt to the climate crisis can create a false sense of security

But quick action can undermine long-term plans. Actions designed to lower immediate risks, the report argues, can reduce the opportunity for a “transformative” adaptation that improves things in the long run. The report warns of the risks of “maladjustment,” in which efforts to tackle climate damage do more harm than good. An example would be the construction of a dam around a city. Doing so protects residents from rising sea levels and storm surges in the short term. But the dam could also change the course of currents along the coast, creating worse erosion elsewhere.

Such measures can also create a false sense of security: in the floodplain around the Jamuna River in Bangladesh, there is evidence that the presence of levees pushes more people to live there, ultimately increasing the possible death toll if a levee should break. Starting an irrigation system in an area where rain can no longer be relied upon to grow crops can lead to excessive consumption of river water, which is taken away from the people living downstream. “When looking for the right solutions, we must not only think about the climate risk, but also the various side effects of the interventions we undertake,” explains Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross / Red Crescent Climate Center, one of the authors of the report.

Physical and political burdens
Even if such unwanted consequences were avoided, there are signs that, in some areas, humans will find it increasingly difficult to adapt. Extreme heat is an example. British Columbia, Canada recorded an exceptionally high temperature of 49.6 degrees last summer. Almost simultaneously, Iraqis protested cuts in electricity supplies as temperatures in the country rose above fifty degrees. The heat wave in Canada was more unusual than that in Iraq. But Canada has the resources to prepare for the next wave if it wants to. Iraq does not.

This kind of “soft limits” can be overcome, but not easily. In the case of Iraq, overcoming them would require at the same time a change in the attitude and capacities of the government, a reform of the institutions and the convergence of donors to provide fresh sums of money.

The fact that tangible damage is already a reality only adds physical but also political burdens. Negotiations during meetings of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – the latest of which, Cop 26, in Glasgow last November – are particularly heated about what the convention calls “loss and damage”: those consequences which are already received today, and on which developing countries are entitled to claim compensation.


Reportedly, the most heated discussions during the closed-door plenary meeting from which the IPCC synthesis emerged stemmed from attempts by some governments to ensure that the report did not go too far in supporting the cause of the countries in way of development. Politics is certainly not new within the IPCC. The latter was also created in the late 1980s to generate political support following the warnings of scientists. But from now on, with assessments projected into the present and no longer into the future, tensions are to be expected to grow.

(Translation by Federico Ferrone)

This article appeared in the British weekly The Economist.

To know

The risks in the Mediterranean area

The new IPCC report in the Italian part offers a focus on the Mediterranean area. Researcher Piero Lionello, from the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change, notes that “the risks associated with predicted climate change are particularly high for people and ecosystems in the Mediterranean basin due to the combination of various factors, including:

  • a large and growing urban population, exposed to heat waves, with limited access to air conditioning;
  • a large and growing number of people living in settlements affected by rising sea levels;
  • severe and growing water shortage, already experienced today by countries in North Africa and the Middle East;
  • growing demand for water from agriculture for irrigation;
  • high economic dependence on tourism, which risks being affected by the increase in heat, but also by the consequences of international policies to reduce emissions on air and cruise travel;
  • loss of marine ecosystems, ecosystems in wetlands, rivers and even mountain areas, many of which are already endangered by unsustainable practices (eg overfishing, land use change) “.