Science Day at COP27 Shows That Climate Talks Aren’t Keeping Pace With Planetary Physics

The first week of climate talks at COP27 ended with another sharp warning from scientists, who said that global warming is already killing thousands to tens of thousands of people each year, and that the carnage will only increase without immediate, sharp cuts of the emissions heating the climate.

The reported death toll “is probably an underestimate because it is based on preliminary quantification for heat-related mortality,” said Kristie Ebi, a public health researcher at the University of Washington and co-author of a new report released at the United Nations climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. “The total number would be larger if all climate-sensitive health outcomes were considered for which there is attribution to climate change,” she said.

The scientific evidence shows that global warming impacts are outrunning the slow pace of negotiations aimed at slowing climate change, said co-author Johann Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

“You cannot continue compromising with science all the time,” he said. “You cannot negotiate with the planet, you cannot negotiate with the atmosphere. These are physical limits. And you’re simply hurting yourself if you underestimate the power of the Earth system.”

That may hold especially with plans to adapt to the effects of global warming with measures like adequate residential cooling, or sea walls. It’s time to “question the myth of endless adaptation,” the authors wrote. “People and ecosystems in different places across the world are already confronted with limits to adaptation, and if the planet warms beyond 1.5°C or even 2°C, more widespread breaching of adaptation limits is expected. Hence, adaptation efforts cannot be a substitute for ambitious mitigation.”

That doesn’t mean giving up on efforts to adapt to the impacts of climate change, said Simon Stiehl, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. He said there needs to be more focus on proactive measures to protect people, “But they will not prevent all losses and damage that we have seen. Investing in mitigation is a way of reducing the need to invest in adaptation and resilience.”

The “myth of endless adaptation” really goes to the heart of the findings of one of the most recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which pointed out “large knowledge gaps” about how to adapt to the changing climate, said Aditi Mukherji, with the International Water Management Institute.

“We do not know which adaptation is effective in reducing risk and under what context,” she said.  “And whatever we know about the effectiveness of adaptation, at higher levels of global warming it is pretty certain that those adaptation measures will not remain very effective.”

Adaptation Gap Grows Wider

A key area where adaptation efforts are falling far short is in addressing the health impacts of global warming, Ebi said.

“Under the UNFCCC’s adaptation funds, less than half of 1 percent goes to health,” she said. “To be able to effectively increase resilience, and to reduce vulnerability, we have to have human health and well-being at the heart of the negotiations.”

The Covid-19 pandemic showed that “our health systems are really unprepared for shocks and stresses,” she said. “Climate change is a massive shock and stress that’s already affecting many countries, requiring health investments where we take into account not just human health, but animal health, nature, and all of the other drivers that affect our health and our well being.”

Investments now should be focused on cutting down the number of preventable deaths from projected impacts like extreme heat and vector-borne diseases, she added.

The report highlights “vulnerability clusters” in Central America, North Africa’s Sahel, Central and East Africa, the Middle East and across Asia, where 1.6 billion people are threatened by climate-driven hazards. That number “could double in the coming years,” said Mercedes Bustamante, an ecologist at the University of Brasilia. 

Breakdowns or big shifts in monsoon rains and intensification of ocean currents are increasing “human vulnerability in densely populated coastal areas,” she said. Focusing on vulnerability hotspots can prioritize action areas in the context of the “loss and damage” discussions occurring at COP27, she added, referring to those funds paid by rich nations most responsible for warming the planet to poorer nations suffering disproportionately from heat, drought, flooding and other extreme weather events linked to climate change. 

The report says the international community must recognize a “planetary imperative” in the fact that the greatest harms of global warming are falling on undeveloped countries that have done the least to cause it, while the wealthy nations responsible for the vast majority of climate-warming emissions bear fewer of the worst impacts. Mukherji said new attribution science linking climate change and its destructive impacts “helps in the cause for furthering the loss and damage agenda” at COP27. 

“It is allowing us to [identify] the fingerprint of climate change in a disaster or a hazard,” she said. “That really helps quantify loss and damages related to climate change much better.”

That can lead to better use and distribution of funding, she said.

The report concluded that climate mobility should also be high on the laundry list for COP delegates because “Involuntary migration and displacement will increasingly occur due to climate change-related slow-onset impacts and the rising frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.”

At the same time, climate impacts disproportionately result in “particularly poor and marginalized communities losing their capacity to adapt by moving away,” with no option but to stay and face increasing climate threats.

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Despite knowledge gaps, the scientists said becoming resilient to global warming impacts requires getting out of the response mode and widely adopting an anticipatory approach, like strengthening shelters on an ongoing basis, preparing to harvest crops early and temporarily evacuating, which can reduce the chances for prolonged displacement. 

Making those preparations, Rockström said, requires inclusive decision-making.

“A lot of the social sciences are, not surprisingly, showing how we need to get to local scales, local needs, local communities, and multiple stakeholders engaged to have any chance of robust climate policy implementation,” he said.

The new report was compiled by several independent science and science advocacy organizations—The Earth League, Future Earth and the World Climate Research Programme. All these 10 of the bullet points in the report are interconnected, and a deep understanding of the complexities should be “central to the climate negotiations,” Rockström said. “Human security requires climate security.” 

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