The Real Mainstream: IPCC’s climate-speak is all Greek to the masses

This article originally appeared in Financial Express

The climate watcher has produced nothing for the general public, except for a press release and a set of headlines.

Scientists are good at science but bad at communicating it to the masses. This is precisely why the gap between the scientific understanding of the climate crisis and policy responses widens. The latest Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) report is a classic example of ineffective communication. Published a few weeks back, it is considered the most comprehensive report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, but the presentation leaves much to desire.

The IPCC reports cater to a small set of people. For example, it is 3675 pages long (which very few outside the climate science community would ever read completely) with a 35 page summary. The summary, targeting policymakers, has been written in a complicated way and requires a person with high scientific knowledge to grasp its essence. Besides, IPCC has produced nothing for the general public except for a press release and a set of headlines.

While one can understand the trepidation of the scientific community for generalisation, it is precisely what is needed to get mass support for climate action. Therefore, it is high time that IPCC publishes and disseminates its findings in a way that most can understand and act on. I have attempted to convert the 35-page summary into ten key findings and put it in simple language. I hope that the IPCC would do better than this.

1. The climate crisis is far worse than previously predicted: The impacts on ecology, economy and human well-being are far worse than expected, and adapting to the crisis will be more difficult than anticipated.

2. It is destroying nature: Climate change has already caused substantial damage and increasingly irreversible losses to the biodiversity on land and oceans, including the extinction of hundreds of species. Approximately half of the species assessed globally have shifted polewards or to higher elevations to cope with increasing heat. Further temperature increases will irreversibly damage warm-water coral reefs, coastal wetlands, rainforests, and polar and mountain ecosystems and cause massive extinction of species dependent on these ecosystems.

3. Climate change is harming human health, peace, and wealth:  It has adversely affected physical and mental health. People have died worldwide due to extreme heat, flooding, and other extreme weather events. In addition, the incidence of climate-related food and water-borne and vector-borne diseases has increased. Cardiovascular and respiratory distress have also increased due to wildfire smoke, atmospheric dust, and aeroallergens.

Climate change is also making the poor poorer. For example, outdoor labour productivity, on which the poor depend for income, has reduced due to higher temperatures. Similarly, economic damages from climate change are prominent in agriculture, forestry, fishery, energy, and tourism, which provides the most employment.

Lastly, it is worsening humanitarian crises by driving displacement in all regions. Besides, evidence is emerging that global warming might be contributing to conflicts by creating a scarcity of water and fertile land.

4. India will be affected the worst:  Not every region will get equally impacted. Countries with poverty, governance challenges, limited access to essential services and resources, violent conflict, and high levels of climate-sensitive livelihoods such as smallholder farmers, pastoralists, and fishing communities, will be the worst affected. Approximately 3.3 to 3.6 billion people live in highly vulnerable regions to climate change; a significant proportion of them are in India.

5. Cities are hotspots: Rapidly growing cities of Asia and Africa that house large concentrations of poor people are especially vulnerable. Increasing temperature and poor development practices, like creating concrete jungles and encroachment of forests and water bodies, will increase heatwaves and flooding.

6. We are rapidly approaching the point of no-return: Climate change impacts and risks are becoming increasingly complex and challenging to manage. Multiple climate hazards will coincide, and multiple climatic and non-climatic risks will interact, creating unmanageable situations. Some losses are already irreversible, such as species extinction. Others are approaching the point of no return, such as the impacts on freshwater due to the retreat of glaciers.

7. Mitigation is the best adaptation: With temperatures rising, the inevitable losses will increase. For example, in the coastal ecosystems, the risk of biodiversity loss ranges from moderate and very high by 1.5°C warming but rises to high to very high by 3°C. So, keeping the temperature below 1.5°C by reducing emissions is the best way to save ourselves.

8. Good development practices mean good adaptation: Unsustainable land use, deforestation, biodiversity-loss, and pollution lower the capacities of ecosystems and societies to adapt to climate change. Eliminating unsustainable practices will significantly help adapt to the climate crisis. For instance, enhancing natural water retention in cities by restoring wetlands and rivers, creating no-build zones, etc., will lower flood risk. Similarly, on-farm water management like rainwater harvesting, soil moisture conservation, and efficient irrigation will improve productivity and reduce vulnerability.

9. Leaving nature alone will save us: Safeguarding biodiversity and ecosystems is fundamental to climate-resilient development. Globally, less than 15% of the land, 21% of the freshwater, and 8% of the ocean are protected areas. However, we will have to conserve approximately 30-50% of these areas to maintain the resilience of ecosystem services.

10. Unequivocal political commitment is a must: Implementing climate actions requires considerable upfront investments, while many benefits will only become visible later. To make such investments, unequivocal political commitment and farsighted planning are essential. In addition, new institutional frameworks, policies, and instruments will be required to set clear goals, define responsibilities and obligations, and coordinate amongst various actors.

Besides, governments alone cannot solve this problem; the role of businesses and civil society is equally critical. Raising public awareness and building social movements are essential for greater public and political commitment. Companies will have to play a greater role in reducing emissions and investing in adaptation. The report essentially says if the climate crisis is not a clear and present danger, nothing else is.

The writer is CEO of the International Forum for Environment, Sustainability and Technology (iFOREST)

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Chandra Bhushan is one of India’s foremost public policy experts and the founder-CEO of International Forum for Environment, Sustainability & Technology (iFOREST).

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