Climate resilience : the window of opportunity is shrinking

Olivier ABULI, advice and analyses consultant

March 21, 2022

On February 28th, the authors of the second part of the IPCC 6th Assessment Report about « impacts, adaptation and vulnerability » delivered another strong message : without appropriate responses, nearly half of the world population is already exposed to major climatic risks, the occurrence of which will increase in the next ten years.

Any global warming increase beyond 1.5°C between now and 2040 will lead to irreversible changes -, even if only temporary, - that will increase the frequency of extreme phenomena and cause heavy damages, most likely cumulative, through a « cascade of effects » (e.g. : drought + impacts on crops + large-scale fires + induced mortality)

Every 10th of a degree will matter...

In July 2021, the first part of this report pointed to the early reaching of tipping points regarding ice melting, permafrost thawing and the future of low-lying atolls and coastal territories.
The second part that is focussed on the interactions and consequences of ecosystem stress on human activities, is unequivocal. In the next 15 years, each delay in adaptation and each decile of global warming (°C) will result in human, ecological and financial losses which will consequently diminish our common capacity for systemic transformations while the induced costs will increase with temperature.

...and not one geographical area is safe !

Some sub-regions in Africa, Asia and South America are already regularly reaching critical thresholds, resulting in food and health problems and the displacement of populations. Extraordinary heat waves associated with mega-fires have recently affected North America and Australia. Atypical episodes of flooding have plunged several European countries into mourning. On the old continent, we are also witnessing a weakening of agricultural models around the Mediterranean Sea and in Central and Eastern Europe.
According to the IPCC experts, 30 to 50% of the Earth planet land, fresh water and oceans should be protected and preserved to maintain the fragile balance of the eco and hydro systems we depend on. At the moment and with a warming level limited to 1.5°C, 3 to 14% of terrestrial species would face a major risk of extinction.

Our abilities to adapt are shrinking

Adaptation has a critical role to play in the coming years to reduce our exposure to climate vulnerabilities. But it is now subject to the hard and soft boundaries reached by many ecosystems. In order to move towards efficient climate resilience, any new mitigation or correction measure should, from now on, be long-term and take into account the increasing complexity of interactions between the rational use of natural resources and human activities.

For example, the strong disturbance of hydrological cycles raises questions about future strategic choices in terms of location, technologies and sharing between energy, industrial and agricultural uses. The same applies to the medium-term future of coastal strips and their port infrastructures threatened by marine erosion, on which most of the world supply chains depend, including foodstuffs.

Global issues of well-being and public health

At this stage, most of the undertaken « delaying » actions, i .e. actions that are either too localized or not sufficiently worked out, are likely to create more negative effects than benefits : hard dykes and coastal embankments, inappropriate changes in land use, excessive pressure on water tables, …etc.

As they are fragmented, insufficiently thought out or planned, these initiatives often increase the degradation of sensitive environments, and, as a consequence, the living conditions of the populations that are most exposed to the effects of global warming and critical climatic episodes.

Demographic and health impacts of global warming

The issue has become global eventhough it is true that climate change is not yet considered as a direct factor in triggering regional conflicts.

But they are already massively killing ... and have been so for decades. They also play a growing role in the erratic flows of forced migration :
- According to the UN, the number of natural disasters has almost doubled since 2000 and has caused the death of 1.2 million people,
- As it is estimated at 23 million in 2020, the number of « climate refugees » could reach 220 million by 2050. These movements are primarily directed towards nearby preserved areas. But they should generate wave effects under demographic pressure in the coming years (World Bank).

Unfortunately you cannot see the wood for the trees with these figures, which speak for themselves. Scientists are sounding the alarm on the occurrence of health risks of a greater magnitude.

The first source of concern is food insecurity and difficulties in accessing drinking water. But they also observe the warning signs of strong epidemiological outbreaks : the resurgence of cholera, the geographical spread of diseases such as dengue fever or the regular emergence of new zoonoses... They also stress the trauma caused by extreme weather events and the more diffuse mental health problems (stress of the younger generations) associated with rising temperatures.

The pathways to resilience lie in soberness, cooperation and inclusion

While this report issues some distressing warnings, its authors also lay down the milestones along the path ridge that would make it possible to significantly increase the world capacity to adapt and then to become more resilient, in order to avoid the most pessimistic projections :
- The keystone consists in not exceeding the 1.5°C limit of a global warming,
- Establishing powerful international mechanisms of solidarity and « climate justice » to take into account past GHG emission records, differences in development levels and current vulnerabilities,
- Planning adaptation actions and projects that respect the interactions between ecosystems and people's way of life, from the local level to international cooperation,
- Promoting the convergence of public and private interests and resources to remove the governance, financial and institutional constraints that hinder the dynamics necessary for resilient development.

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