Code Red: Decoding the latest IPCC climate risk report

By Padmini Subhashree

The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine has captured almost the whole of global media attention over the past few days. 

And while it is unfortunate to be living in such times as to witness a massive military and humanitarian crisis unfold, it is further disappointing to read the recent report on climate change that warns about the creation of an irreversible planetary crisis. 

A few days ago, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) released a 3,500-page report about the state of climate threats facing Earth. Even if one were to believe that most climate reports come with a worst-case scenario narrative, the latest one, in particular, stands out in more ways than one.

It is perhaps the first such report by an UN-backed agency that conclusively determines the impacts of climate change to be “irreversible”. It’s also the first report of its kind that has assessed climate change’s regional and sectoral impacts. It also points out the unsaid truth about climate change realities – truths that are too hard to ignore and too big to encounter. 

Here are the big takeaways from the report and an explainer on what lies at stake.

The salvage ride has ended

Findings in the report show that climate breakdown is happening faster than expected and the window to take combat measures is closing soon. It is “Code Red” time, as they call it, and the crisis is engulfing us, one inch at a time, much like the oceanic levels. 

Here’s what that looks like from a numerical perspective:

  1. Almost 3.5 billion people (= 45% of the global population) are living in areas that are highly vulnerable to climate change.
  2. Some of the losses, like those resulting from the death of coral reefs or the melting of glaciers, are irreversible in our lifetimes.
  3. Multiple climate disasters are likely to emerge globally by 2040, EVEN IF efforts are made to contain temperature rise within 1.5 degree Celsius from pre-industrial times.
  4. If the 1.5 degree Celsius average temperature rise is breached, even temporarily, it would lead to additional severe impacts

And, here are some India-specific details from the report:

  1. Impacts of climate change would erode 2% of the GDP in South Asian countries (including India) by 2050.
  2. “Deadly” heatwaves could rise in the Indus and Ganga river basins potentially crossing the limits of human survivability.
  3. Sensitivity to temperature changes in crops will be perceived most in tropical countries. Maize production in India, for instance, could witness a 25% decrease with a 1 degree Celsius rise. 
  4. Without adaptation measures in place, India’s GDP losses from sea-level rise will be second only to China by 2080.
  5. India’s cities remain most vulnerable to climate risks. Mumbai is at a high risk of flooding and sea-level rise. Chennai, Bhubaneswar, Patna and Lucknow are among the ones approaching dangerous levels of heat and humidity.
  6. Yields of some key commercial species like the Hilsa shad, Bombay duck etc. are projected to decline dramatically if temperatures continue to rise. 

Essentially, there is no more waiting for climate change to happen. It has happened already and its effects are widespread, and in some instances, irreversible. 

What’s new?

One thing you need to understand is that this is Part II of the report that was published last year. The first part was released in August 2021 and it focused more on the physical science of climate change. The second part, as evident, is centered on climate change impacts, risks, vulnerabilities and adaptation options. 

In fact, here’s what we know about the IPCC reports. The first one came out in the year 1990. Back then, its outline was quite basal and it only identified the emerging risk areas. 

To be fair, each assessment report says nothing remarkably new. Over the years, each report has built on the work of previous reports, adding more data and evidence so that the findings bear a greater level of authenticity and clarity. But when stacked over time, the risk build-up in successive reports acquires enough critical mass to take a whole new course. This also explains why the 1990 report contrasts so much with the 2022 report. 

But there has been a break-in that trend recently. In 2014 came the fifth assessment report which spent quite a lot of ink on the projected impacts of climate change. What we are now reading in 2022, however, is the sixth assessment report which devotes pages and pages to the events that have already occurred. 

The fact that the nature of the report underwent such a drastic change in just under a decade and within two successive reports is further proof of the climate prognosis that they underline. There are several new dimensions that have been brought to light this time. For instance, the regional risk assessment is new. The pin-pointedness of coastal locations in India and around the world that face immediate threat is a novel finding. Such granular information was not available earlier. 

Secondly, this report focuses increasingly on the health impacts of climate change. It correlates the rise in vector- and water-borne diseases (such as dengue or malaria), infant mortality, diabetes and circulatory disorders in the subtropical regions to climate instabilities. 

And finally, the report stands out in stressing the failure of adaptation measures so far in combating climate disruptions. The fact that there are glaring gaps in adaptation as a consequence of the lack of political will, financing and commitment, is the defining pale red dot underlining this report. 

Hold on, don’t panic!

Yes, the report is alarming. Yes, the situation is grave. Yes, we must pay attention to a drudge of a climate report compiled by 900 authors from around the world and NOT use it as a melatonin supplement. 

But let’s try and find a more optimistic spin on this, if we can?

First thing to remember is that believe it or not, we are currently witnessing a level of climate consensus at the international level that we haven’t seen before. Three major climate conclaves – The White House Leaders Summit on Climate, The 2021 G7 Summit in Cornwall and The COP26 in Glasgow – took place within a year, to say nothing of the era-defining resolutions taken in each. 

After much shadowy gamble during the Trump Administration, the United States is now exhibiting more commitment than ever to achieving climate goals. Developing countries like India, though hindered by the growth curve, are taking decisive steps to achieve radical targets like net-zero emissions.

It may sound reductive but it all comes down to this – individual best practices, coordinated mitigation targets and more and more investment in the green industrial sector. If every individual vowed to be critical of anti-climate and anti-conservation practices, that would affect a tidal change in planetary awareness. 

Also, the most important thing to remember is that the gaps in adaptation measures are, at the end of the day, gaps and not crevices. Phasing out emissions takes time and time is in short supply. But if there’s one thing to remember about human intervention in climate risk management, it’s that it is achievable and it has been achieved before – like the recovery of the ozone layer depletion. 

Let that story replicate itself…

Padmini is an editor at Transfin Media Pvt. Ltd. and a law graduate from WBNUJS, Kolkata.

The Analysis (TA) is a research and communication group working on the issues of Climate Change, Public Health, Gender and Human Rights. Feel free to share your submissions on these issues with us at contact@theanalysis.org.in

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