We Are Changing Climate Faster Than We Can Adapt, New IPCC Report Warns

Despite the ‘irreversible’ impacts of a warming planet, scientists emphasize there is still time to act

Winter wildfires near Bixby Bridge in Big Sur
Wildfires blazed through Big Sur in January 2022. MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images / Contributor

Humans are changing the climate too rapidly for nature to keep up, according to a new United Nations (UN) report released on Monday. Unless greenhouse gas emissions are quickly slashed, both humans and wildlife will no longer adapt to the dangers of a warming planet.

The latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is based on years of research from hundreds of scientists and follows previous landmark assessments on the global threat of climate change. The new 3,675-page report authored by 270 researchers from nearly 70 nations, concluded that human-caused climate change is happening faster and causing more damage than researchers previously expected, according to Sara Kiley Watson for Popular Science. The report is the second of three reviews from the IPCC.

“With fact upon fact, this report reveals how people and the planet are getting clobbered by climate change,” says UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a statement. “Nearly half of humanity is living in the danger zone—now. Many ecosystems are at the point of no return—now. Unchecked carbon pollution is forcing the world’s most vulnerable on a frog march to destruction—now.”

Climate change is not a future abstract threat, per the new report, and is already harming communities and ecosystems around the world. In 2019, extreme weather like storms and floods displaced more than 13 million people across Asia and Africa, according to Brad Plumer and Raymond Zhong for the New York Times. Heat and drought are threatening the food and water supply for millions of people, and rising sea levels are encroaching on coastal communities.

In recent years, more individuals have been forced to deal with extreme weather events linked to climate change, like the deadly heatwave that hit the western United States last summer. Anthropogenic warming increased the likelihood of floods that swept through parts of Europe last year by up to nine times and made Australia's devastating fire seasons 30 percent more likely.

“One of the most striking conclusions in our report is that we’re seeing adverse impacts that are much more widespread and much more negative than expected,” Camille Parmesan, an ecologist at the University of Texas, Austin, and one of the researchers involved in the report, tells the Times.

The report found some regions are feeling the impacts of climate change more than others. Between 2010 and 2020, floods, droughts, and storms killed 15 times more people in very vulnerable parts of Africa, South Asia, and Central and South America, than in other parts of the world, per Matt McGrath for BBC. A warmer planet also presents new health risks, including the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses like dengue fever to billions more people.

“This report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction,” says Hoesung Lee, chair of the IPCC, in a statement. “Half measures are no longer an option.”

The new analysis comes roughly 100 days since the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, where scientists and world leaders aimed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and stave off the worst effects of climate change. Since humans started burning fossil fuels in the 19th century, global temperatures have climbed an average of 1.1 degrees Celsius, or 2 degrees Fahrenheit. Currently, the world is currently on pace to warm somewhere between 2 degrees and 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, and a few degrees can have a big impact on the planet.

If global warming is limited to just 2 degrees Celsius by 2100, for example, around a fifth of land species will be at high risk of extinction, per CNN’s Rachel Ramirez. If that jumps to 4 degrees of warming, half of those animals will be threatened. Some animals, like corals, may already be out of time to adapt.

Though many of the impacts of global warming are "irreversible," according to the report, scientists behind the assessment say that there is still time to act. Certain leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, have vowed to limit warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius to meet that goal, but few nations have offered specific plans. To limit warming to that threshold, humans need to cut global greenhouse gas emissions nearly in half by 2030 and come close to eliminating their fossil-fuel emissions by 2050.

“Now is the time to turn rage into action,” Guterres says in a statement. “Every fraction of a degree matters. Every voice can make a difference. And every second counts.”