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9 Lessons from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Published: February 21, 2024 by Editorial Team

Climate change is visibly impacting natural systems; in fact it’s hard to mention the topic without conjuring images of polar bears on melting ice. However, for the first time the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s foremost authority on the subject, has begun to describe how climate change will impact human systems (us).

Naturally, we’re up against uncertainty. However, this uncertainty isn’t about whether climate change is happening or if people are the cause. It’s uncertainty about the likelihood of particular threats, how we can best prepare for them, and the future of climate politics.

Here are some of the most important lessons from the IPCC’s recently released Fifth Assessment Report:

1)  How we produce food will change… On land, droughts and flooding are problems for crop and livestock farmers. At sea, changes in the acidity of the water are disrupting portions of the marine food chain. This means we’ll have to adapt to feed a growing population.
2)  …and so will our water supply. Climate change isn’t just melting glaciers, it’s changing the distribution of water worldwide. Previously lush areas could dry out and currently dry areas are likely to flood, especially low-lying coastal areas.
3)  Our health may suffer. Vulnerable populations will face more exposure to extreme heat and cold, and disease patterns may track the shifts in water distribution.
4)  We’ll all be impacted… In the words of the IPCC, climate change is occurring “on all continents and across the oceans”; in other words, no place on Earth is immune from its effects.
5)  …but not equally. Climate change is a worldwide and complex problem and as such, it’s intimately tied with other worldwide and complex problems, like poverty. Because of this…
6)  Increased warming could mean increased conflict. As these changes take effect, inequities are likely to increase, throwing people into competition for limited resources in ways we haven’t yet predicted.

Despite the seemingly dire predictions listed here, the IPCC has some very good news for us as well:

7)  We still have control, and our actions matter. Taking bold action on climate change now will significantly lessen each of these risks, while taking more conservative actions later will increase them.
8)  Taking action would have a very small impact on the economy…The IPCC estimates worldwide economic growth at 1.3-3.0% each year. If we were to take full action to mitigate climate change, this number would dampen by .06%; in other words, 3% growth would become 2.94% growth. In addition, acting now means saving money on adaptation efforts in the future.
9)  …and could have other benefits as well. Because climate change is tied to many other pervasive issues, there is naturally some overlap in interventions. For example, programs that encourage biking to work, avoid carbon emissions from single-occupancy vehicles while simultaneously increasing employee health; ultimately leading to clean air and cost savings on health care.

Luckily, we know how to act; we’ve already started to do many of the right things but we need to accelerate the pace. According to the IPCC, policymakers can help by making it easier to shift to low-carbon technologies, by cooperating across state and international borders, and by trying to find equitable solutions with multiple benefits. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.