“Delay Means Death,” UN Chief Warns About Climate Change

Scientists say there is a “rapidly closing window” for climate action

By Nick Cunningham

March 2, 2022


Photo by Elen11/iStock

As the world shifts its attention from the COVID pandemic to the horror of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, scientists want everyone to know that another crisis is not going away. On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the climate emergency will continue to worsen in the coming decades as a result of the sheer quantity of greenhouse gas emissions already pumped into the atmosphere. But the future is not yet written, and more catastrophic outcomes can still be avoided if the world moves rapidly to slash emissions. 

“The scientific evidence is unequivocal: Climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future,” Hans-Otto Pörtner, a marine biologist from Germany who helped coordinate the new report, said in a press release. 

Last year, the IPCC released the first section of the Sixth Assessment Report on the global scientific consensus on climate change. At the time, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called the findings, which looked only at the physical science, a “code red for humanity.”  

The second section, released this week, looks at climate impacts and socioeconomic vulnerabilities. The third section, due to be published later this spring, will dive into solutions.  

Previous editions of the IPCC report used more cautious language, speaking of “potential risks” and the threat of calamities in the future. Now, the IPCC said the impacts are already being felt and are growing worse. “The rise in weather and climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt,” the report said. 

At 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit of warming (or 1.5 degrees Celsius), 3 to 14 percent of species in terrestrial ecosystems will likely face a high risk of extinction. Floods and inundations hitting small islands and global coastlines will intensify. The increasing severity of droughts, floods, and heat waves will put more pressure on food production. Already, the risk of infectious diseases, water and food scarcity, and extreme weather is rising. 

The report also pointed to the growing toll on mental health around the world, with stress and anxiety particularly affecting children, the elderly, and those with health conditions. All of these outcomes become magnified at every additional fraction of a degree of warming. 

“The rise in weather and climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt.”

“I have seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this,” Guterres said on Monday. “Today’s IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”

Another broad conclusion from the report is that some parts of the world are suffering from the climate crisis more than others, with 3.3 to 3.6 billion people “highly vulnerable to climate change.” For instance, between 2010 and 2020, people in highly vulnerable areas were 15 times more likely to die from floods, droughts, and storms than people in regions that were less exposed to climate change. Increased food and water security have hit parts of Africa, Asia, Central and South America, small islands, and the Arctic especially hard. 

Unsurprisingly, those impacts hit marginalized communities worse. The history of colonialism and the prevailing global economic system that benefits only certain people mean the worst effects are concentrated on the people least responsible for the crisis, the report said.  

“The poorest who have done the least to contribute to climate change are suffering the most, and we have a moral responsibility to help those communities adapt,” Nafkote Dabi, climate policy lead for Oxfam International, said in a statement. “Inequality is at the heart of today’s climate crisis—in the little over 100 days since COP26, the richest 1 percent of the world’s population have emitted much more carbon than the population of Africa does in an entire year. The super-rich are racing through the planet’s small remaining carbon budget for limiting global warming to 1.5°C.” 

The UN-backed scientists warned that even in a scenario where the world gets its act together and dramatically cuts greenhouse gas emissions but temporarily overshoots 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit of warming, there would still likely be irreversible damages. This would include species extinctions, ecosystem destruction, melted ice sheets, and damage to infrastructure and economies.

“Overshooting” the 2.7 degrees target also carries additional warming risks if certain tipping points are breached. Mass mortality of forests, drying of peatlands, and melting permafrost could supercharge warming by releasing even more carbon dioxide and methane. These findings severely undercut the notion that action can be put off and addressed at a later date.

“Delay means death,” Guterres said. 

The report also called attention to the increased evidence of “maladaptation.” That is, strategies and policies that lock societies into inflexible and expensive arrangements that may do little in the long term to address the causes or consequences of climate chaos. Seawalls and excessive fire suppression fall into this category—examples of approaches that may exacerbate the problems they are intended to fix. 

Not all the findings were grim. In recent years, progress on climate adaptation has taken place in countries around the world. Among policymakers and the general public, there is growing awareness of how the climate crisis can be addressed with improved planning in agriculture, innovation, health, food security, and well-being.  

Still, these efforts are “fragmented, small in scale, incremental, and sector-specific” and fall far short of the transformational policies needed to address the crisis, the report said. 

The good news is that many of the solutions that address climate change also have multiple benefits to people and ecosystems. For example, transforming the energy system can slash pollution, fortify electric grids, guard against climate disasters, improve public health, and reduce income inequality. 

But the scientists underscored how serious the crisis is. They warned that climate-resilient development may not be possible at all in some regions of the world if warming surpasses 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit globally (2 degrees Celsius). Most affected will be low-lying coastal areas, deserts, small islands, mountains, and polar regions. Humanity’s ability to adapt to the climate crisis will become increasingly difficult with every degree of additional warming.

What are we to do? Solutions will be detailed in a forthcoming IPCC report, but the overarching pathway is the same as it has always been: a rapid reduction in emissions, which above all means a decisive break from fossil fuels. 

The solutions are readily available, but political gridlock remains a key barrier. “Vested interests have generated rhetoric and misinformation that undermines climate science and disregards risk and urgency,” the report declared. This was the first instance in which the scientific body called out obfuscation and climate denial.  

“The world’s biggest polluters are guilty of arson of our only home,” Guterres said. “Science tells us that will require the world to cut emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.  But according to current commitments, global emissions are set to increase almost 14 percent over the current decade. That spells catastrophe.” 

The warnings come amid Russia’s disastrous war in Ukraine. Much of the world has united in an effort to isolate Russia, but the invasion also risks putting climate policy on the backburner. The oil industry is opportunistically trying to capitalize off of the war to make the case that more drilling is needed for geopolitical purposes.  

The head of Ukraine’s delegation at the IPCC, Svitlana Krakovska, did not see her work on climate change as unrelated to the war in her country. As she told her IPCC colleagues in recent days, “Human-induced climate change and war against Ukraine have direct connections and the same roots. They are fossil fuels and humanity’s dependence on them.” 

Climate activists in the United States, meanwhile, continue to call for immediate action. “The science in this report is clear: The president and Congress simply have to do more, faster, if there is any chance of mitigating the worst effects of this crisis,” Lena Moffitt, chief of staff for Evergreen Action, a climate advocacy organization, said in a statement. “The knock on the door is loud and clear. This is our last best chance to address this climate crisis and forge a pathway toward a livable future.”