"Time Is Running Out to Avert A Harrowing Future, Climate Panel Warns," ran the front page headline in The New York Times earlier this week. The Washington Post's front page similarly read, "Humanity has a 'brief and rapidly closing window' to avoid hotter, deadly future, U.N. climate report says." Both newspapers are citing claims and data from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) new report Climate Change 2022: Impact, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the report an "atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership." He added, "Delay means death."
Is humanity's situation as dire as the headlines suggest?
"The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health," urgently cautions the IPCC Adaptation report, which is nearly 3,700 pages long and is the second part of the IPCC's Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) on climate change and follows that agency's Physical Science Basis report issued last August. (The third part of the AR6 report on the mitigation of climate change will be issued in April.)
Let's be clear: man-made climate change is happening and humanity is already adapting to it and will continue to have to do so. Largely as the result of the rising atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, global average temperature has increased by about 1.1°C (about 2°F) since the late 19th century. Consequently, heatwaves on land and in the oceans have become more intense and more common, downpours have become more frequent, and the rise in sea level is accelerating.
One not too startling finding of the report is that bad and worsening weather poses the biggest risks for poor people ruled over by corrupt kleptocratic elites. "Vulnerability is higher in locations with poverty, governance challenges and limited access to basic services and resources, violent conflict and high levels of climate-sensitive livelihoods (e.g., smallholder farmers, pastoralists, fishing communities)," notes the report's Summary for Policymakers.
As an example of the vulnerability, the Summary observes that between 2010 and 2020 that deaths from flooding, droughts, and storms were 15-times higher in poorer regions than they were in economically developed areas. To get that figure the report specifically compares weather mortality in Mozambique ($450 GDP per capita), Somalia ($310), Nigeria ($2,100), Afghanistan ($509), and Haiti ($1,177) versus the U.K. ($40,284), Australia ($51,812), Canada ($43,241), and Sweden ($51,925). When bad weather meets poverty, it kills people.
However, deep in its text the IPCC report gets around to citing the remarkable 2019 study in Global Environmental Change by two European researchers that found "a clear decreasing trend in both human and economic vulnerability, with global average mortality and economic loss rates that have dropped by 6.5 and nearly 5 times, respectively, from 1980–1989 to 2007–2016." Keep in mind that falling mortality and economic loss rates occurred as world population grew and people built lots more stuff.
The researchers additionally report that mortality and economic losses stemming from bad weather have declined faster in poor countries as they have grown richer. "This has led to a convergence in vulnerability between higher and lower income countries," they note. Despite the fast and steep decline, vulnerability to weather hazards remains higher in poorer regions.
In his 2020 article in Technological Forecasting & Social Change, Copenhagen Consensus Center founder Bjorn Lomborg noted that the "global death risk from extreme weather has declined 99% over 100 years and global costs have declined 26% over the last 28 years." Simply put: People around the world have already been rapidly and successfully adapting to changes in the weather.
Probably the most costly concern stemming from climate change is coastal inundation as sea level rises due to melting glaciers and thermal expansion. A 2018 study calculated that, if no efforts were made to adapt to rising seas, damages from coastal flooding would reach $14 trillion annually by 2100. Of course, people will not blithely let higher tides sweep over them and their property; they will adapt.
Estimates of how much it will cost to fend off rising seas vary considerably depending on projections of just how high the oceans will rise; how many people live near the coasts; and how much they build along the shorelines. A 2021 analysis in Climatic Change looking at best-case to worst-case temperature increases estimated that the total costs of building and maintaining seawalls, dikes, and other coastal protections ranged from 0.03 to 0.18 percent of global GDP. A 2019 World Bank analysis of best- and worst-case sea level increases calculated that the cumulative costs for coastal defense would range, in inflation-adjusted dollars between $2.9 and $18.2 trillion by 2100. Assuming a relatively modest 2 percent annual economic growth rate, annual global GDP will rise from $94 trillion now to $440 trillion by the end of this century which suggests that much richer and more technically adept generations will be able to adapt to rising seas.
"Climate change will increasingly put pressure on food production and access," according to the Adaptation report. In fact, the report asserts, "Human-induced warming has slowed growth of agricultural productivity over the past 50 years in mid- and low-latitudes." These claims rely chiefly on recent research that models what crop yields might have been absent climate change. In the meantime, global average cereal yields per hectare rose from 1,428 kilograms in 1961 to 4,070 kilograms in 2018, nearly a 300 percent increase. Global cereal production rose four-fold, from 744 million tons in 1961 to nearly 3 billion tons in 2018.
As the result of greatly improved agricultural productivity, the share of the world's population suffering from undernourishment has fallen from about one-third in 1960 to around about 9 percent today. Clearly farmers around the world have, on average, been more than able to keep ahead of whatever deleterious effects that current climate change may have on their crops.
What about the future? Plant breeders are already developing crops that can withstand higher temperatures, drought, and can grow in salty soils. The application of modern biotechnology techniques such as genome editing will speed up the process of identifying and developing new crop varieties that can better cope with the vagaries of a changing climate. In addition, crop and livestock production is likely to be disrupted by novel food technologies such as alternative proteins, vat-grown meat, yeast-fermented milk, and vertical farming, which will have concomitant benefits of reducing the emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases.
The Adaptation report further warns, "Climate-sensitive food-borne, water-borne, and vector-borne disease risks are projected to increase under all levels of warming without additional adaptation." The report specifically cites the risk dengue fever spreading to billions more people by the end of the century.
First, of course, there will certainly be additional adaptation to disease risks. Since development of the germ theory of disease in the late 19th century, the chief "adaptations" to communicable diseases have been sanitation and vaccines. Even while implausibly spinning out scenarios of climate change-boosted epidemics, the report does acknowledge both sanitation and vaccines as "effective adaptation options." Just taking a short snapshot of trends, the number of people dying annually of food-borne and water-borne diarrheal diseases has been cut in half since 1990. In 1990, more than 34 percent of global deaths were the result of communicable diseases. By 2019 that had dropped to 18 percent. Access to clean water and sanitation strongly tracks per capita GDP.
With respect to vector-borne illnesses, the good news is that the number of annual deaths (mostly children) from mosquito-borne malaria has been trending down for the past 15 years or so. The really good news is that a vaccine against the parasite was approved for the first time last year and others are in the works. Hailed as a "game-changer," the new vaccine, in combination with other control measures, could reduce malaria deaths among children by 70 percent.
What about mosquito-borne dengue? Again, progress is being made toward developing a vaccine that significantly reduces the risks of hospitalization and death from contracting the virus. Research on developing even more effective dengue vaccines is ongoing. Another approach toward protecting people from vector-borne diseases would be to control the vectors. For example, mosquitoes could be genetically modified so that their populations crash or they themselves become immune to the disease organisms.
The Adaptation report offers a worst-case projection that high man-made temperature increase exceeding 5°C could result in the extinction nearly half of all land-dwelling species; in the best case where temperature is reined in at 1.5°C perhaps only 3 percent will die out.
Given the extremely poor record to mass extinction predictions, these projections should be taken with a grain of salt. Even if the extinction projections turn out to be ballpark correct, George Washington University biologist R. Alexander Pyron has argued that "both the planet and humanity can probably survive or even thrive in a world with fewer species." He added, "Developed human societies can exist and function in harmony with diverse natural communities, even if those communities are less diverse than they were before humanity."
On the other, happier, hand, the trends toward greater agricultural productivity, dematerialization, and urbanization suggests that humanity will be able to set aside increasing amounts of land and ocean for the natural world.
University of Colorado climate change policy researcher Roger Pielke Jr. points out that many of the headlined worst-case projections in the Adaptation report are based on highly implausible scenarios in which humanity would burn enough coal and oil to triple the amount of carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere by the end of this century. In fact, Pielke and his colleagues argue that instead of heading toward a global average temperature of around 4°C by 2100, the world is on a more moderate track where temperatures would be around 2.2°C by 2100. Obviously, a lower temperature trajectory will make it easier for humanity to adapt to climate change.
Adaptation and the development of low-carbon energy generation technologies will both be required to address and mitigate the challenges of man-made climate change. And yes, the world is slated to get warmer, but humanity is not running out of time to avert a harrowing climate future.
Again, when bad weather meets poverty, people die. The recipe for successfully adapting to climate change is continued economic growth and technological progress.