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Urgent calls to fast-track climate action as new report warns of global health catastrophe

Climate decisions over the next decade will have ramifications for thousands of years to come, warns the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

It makes grim but important reading at a time when Australia has 116 new coal, oil and gas projects in the pipeline, in spite of all the evidence that continued fossil fuels development is not compatible with a liveable planet.


Melissa Sweet writes:

As the world’s climate becomes increasingly unsafe, governments and all sections of society need to do far more to both reduce global warming and prepare for conditions to worsen significantly in the relatively near future.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says climate change is already having profound and wide-ranging impacts at 1.1°C of warming. This situation both reflects and exacerbates profound inequities, with vulnerable communities who have historically contributed the least to current climate change being disproportionately affected.

Hopes of keeping further temperature increases below 1.5°C appear increasingly unrealistic, with the report expecting this threshold will be passed in the near term (with one scientist telling the launch this was expected to occur early next decade). It models scenarios for 2081–2100 that range from 1.4°C warming for very low greenhouse gas emissions to 2.7°C for an intermediate emissions scenario and 4.4°C for a very high scenario.

The Synthesis Report of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report – released only in summary to date – warns that at 1.5°C warming there are limits to adaptive capacity for some human and natural systems, and with every increment of warming, losses and damages will increase. Adaptation options that are feasible and effective today will become less effective with increasing global warming, it says.

“Without urgent, effective, and equitable mitigation and adaptation actions, climate change increasingly threatens ecosystems, biodiversity, and the livelihoods, health and wellbeing of current and future generations,” the report says.

“There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all. The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years.”

Lived experience

Approximately 3.3–3.6 billion people live in contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change, with increasing weather and climate extreme events already having exposed millions to acute food insecurity and reduced water security. Worst hit have been people in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Least Developed Countries, Small Islands and the Arctic, and globally for Indigenous Peoples, small-scale food producers and low-income households.

Climate and weather extremes are increasingly driving displacement in Africa, Asia, North America and Central and South America, with small island states in the Caribbean and South Pacific disproportionately affected. The report also says the economic damage from climate change is affecting exposed sectors including agriculture, forestry, fishery, energy, and tourism.

While the report outlines gains being made in mitigation and adaptation, overall these are far, far less than what is needed. The authors note, for example, that public and private finance flows for fossil fuels are still greater than those for climate adaptation and mitigation.

They warn that climatic and non-climatic risks will increasingly interact, creating “compound and cascading risks” that are more complex and difficult to manage. As climate-driven food insecurity and supply instability increases, for example, this will interact with other risk drivers such as competition for land between urban expansion and food production, pandemics and conflict. Global trends such as migration, growing inequality and urbanisation are also increasing exposures to climatic hazards.

In the near term, every region in the world is projected to face further increases in climate hazards, says the report. These include an increase in heat-related human mortality and morbidity, food-borne, water-borne, and vector-borne diseases, mental health challenges, flooding in coastal and other low-lying cities and regions, biodiversity loss in land, freshwater and ocean ecosystems, droughts, tropical storms, fire weather, and a decrease in food production in some regions as well as a projected increase in frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation.

Sea level rise is unavoidable for centuries to millennia due to continuing deep ocean warming and ice sheet melt, and sea levels will remain elevated for thousands of years – although deep, rapid and sustained reductions in emissions would limit the acceleration of further sea level rises.

Global response

Responding to the report, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres urged every country and every sector to massively fast-track climate efforts, in order to reach global net zero by 2050.

Leaders of developed countries must commit to reaching net zero as close as possible to 2040, he said.

He also called for:

  • No new coal and the phasing out of existing coal by 2030 in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and 2040 in all other countries
  • Ending all international public and private funding of coal
  • Ensuring net zero electricity generation by 2035 for all developed economies and 2040 for the rest of the world
  • Ceasing all licensing or funding of new oil and gas
  • Stopping any expansion of existing oil and gas reserves
  • Shifting subsidies from fossil fuels to a just energy transition
  • Establishing a global phase down of existing oil and gas production compatible with the 2050 global net zero target.

Justice matters

The report says that prioritising equity, climate justice, social justice, inclusion and just transition processes can enable adaptation and ambitious mitigation actions and climate resilient development, including through redistributive policies that shield the poor and vulnerable.

“Attention to equity and broad and meaningful participation of all relevant actors in decision making at all scales can build social trust which builds on equitable sharing of benefits and burdens of mitigation that deepen and widen support for transformative changes,” says the report.

“Drawing on diverse knowledges and cultural values, meaningful participation and inclusive engagement processes – including Indigenous Knowledge, local knowledge, and scientific knowledge – facilitates climate resilient development, builds capacity and allows locally appropriate and socially acceptable solutions.”

The report also cites evidence that human health will benefit from integrated mitigation and adaptation options that mainstream health into food, infrastructure, social protection, and water policies.

It recommends strengthening public health programs related to climate-sensitive diseases, increasing health systems resilience, improving ecosystem health, improving access to potable water, reducing exposure of water and sanitation systems to flooding, improving surveillance and early warning systems, vaccine development and improving access to mental healthcare, as well as ensuring Heat Health Action Plans that include early warning and response systems.

Accelerated climate action can also provide co-benefits for health through lower air pollution, active mobility such as walking and cycling, and shifts to sustainable healthy diets.

It highlights the importance of disaster risk management, early warning systems, increasing education including capacity building, climate literacy, and community approaches to facilitate heightened risk perception and accelerate behavioural changes and planning.

The report says urban systems are critical for achieving deep emissions reductions and advancing climate resilient development and that climate change impacts and risks should be considered in the design and planning of settlements and infrastructure, including through co-location of jobs and housing, supporting public transport and active mobility.

Australian context

The report comes as work progresses on developing a national Health and Climate Strategy, and amid intense political and policy debate over the Federal Government’s Safeguard Mechanism, which has been widely criticised for enabling ongoing fossil fuels development.

Professor Sharon Friel, Professor of Health Equity at the ANU, told Croakey that climate change mitigation requires no new coal or gas projects.

“Allowing such projects is saying we don’t care about future generations – we don’t care about our children and grandchildren,” she said.

She stressed that the National Health and Climate Strategy must not just focus on the health sector and it must not just focus on adaptation. It must be intersectoral – involving food, infrastructure, employment etc. “Otherwise we are simply moving the deckchairs on a sinking ship,” she said.

Friel added: “These issues should be on the front page of every newspaper and the top story on the news across every channel. This is the biggest issue of our time.”

Writing elsewhere at Croakey, Professor Fran Baum urged colleagues in the public health community “to get active in whatever ways you can whether it is lobbying your political representatives, joining protest movements, civil disobedience or whatever action you can think of”.

“Time is running out,” she said, “and change has always come from activism forcing the hand of governments.”

The CEO of the Lowitja Institute, Adjunct Professor Janine Mohamed, stressed the impact that climate change is already having upon the physical and mental health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“At the same time, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are equipped to drive climate solutions, using experiential, traditional and cultural knowledges. We are intimately connected to Country and our knowledge and cultural practices echo millennia of living with climate shifts,” Mohamed wrote in the Institute’s latest e-bulletin.

“For these reasons, one recommendation in this year’s Close the Gap report…urges governments to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities to develop, fund and implement an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander climate change strategic framework.”

Dr Richard Yin, Deputy Chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia, said the IPCC report again highlights the urgency in the need for climate action this decade.

“It further confirms that climate change, caused by human greenhouse gas emissions, is driving widespread losses and damages to nature and people, exposing human societies and nature to intolerable and irreversible risks, including harming people, damaging food production, destroying nature and reducing economic growth,” he said.

“Every fraction of a  degree of warming allowed to go unchecked has profound health impacts. There are multiple feasible ways of reducing our emissions but it requires deep and immediate cuts with a rapid phaseout of fossil fuels. There should be no place within the Safeguard Mechanism for new fossil fuel projects to be allowed to proceed if we are to heed the science and act to protect the health of people and communities.”

The Climate and Health Alliance said it supported the UN Chief’s calls for action, and also said the Australian Government’s Safeguard Mechanism needs to be strengthened if it is to be effective or complemented with other policy mechanisms, including limiting the use of offsets, and regulation of Scope 3 emissions. It should be subject to regular transparent reviews, and reforms should be embedded in legislation, with capacity to regularly review and tighten conditions.

Recent roundtable meeting on national Health and Climate Strategy. Photo supplied by CAHA

Further reading

• Expert commentary on IPCC report

• The Monthly: Labor Vs science

• The Irish Examiner (parallels with Australia): Just like in the movies, scientists are ignored

“The IPCC report may be front-page news today, but it will likely have vanished from the news agenda within a day or two. And all the while, we are bombarded every waking hour of every day with advertising and marketing messages urging us to fly, drive, shop, and spend like there’s, well, no tomorrow.

“Surely, most people may reason, if this truly was an emergency, wouldn’t the Government and our media outlets act accordingly? The national response to the COVID crisis, including a €20m Government spend on advertising, left no one in any doubt that it was being taken seriously.

“In contrast, have you ever seen a single Government advert explaining the climate emergency, or why whole-of-society change is urgently needed and what are the steps we should take next?”

• Behind the scenes of the IPCC


From Twitter