The University of Auckland’s Kevin Trenberth looks at the climate realities put forth in the latest IPCC report 

The “rain bomb” that hit Queensland and New South Wales brought extensive flooding in many areas centered on Brisbane, causing major damage and loss of life. It is a sharp reminder that climate change is making these kinds of events more likely and much more damaging.

And now we have a major war in Europe: war is extremely destructive to infrastructure and unhealthy for the environment. Massive amounts of natural resources are wasted and huge amounts of carbon dioxide generated by military activities.

Vast quantities of fuel are used by planes and tanks (tanks get about 1km per four to six litres of fuel). This will currently be presenting major logistical problems for the Russians in keeping the lines of supplies open to meet this demand. In addition, weapons and explosives pollute the land, water supplies and the air – such pollution is substantial and often dangerous – and uncontrolled fires are common. 

The list of tangible impacts could go on but perhaps worst of all, war destroys the ability to work together as a global community on planet Earth, which is essential if climate change is to be adequately addressed.

Just as these world-changing events have been taking place, the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was being released on the topic of Climate Change 2022: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.  It follows the IPCC report late last year on the science of climate change. 

The new report highlights the negative impacts of climate change that are mounting far faster than most scientists previously predicted. Many impacts, both that have happened and are expected, can be dealt with by building resilience and adaptation to the new expectations. But progressively, many impacts are becoming unavoidable.

The latter include rising sea levels and other water issues, very important for New Zealand. In low-lying coastal communities, for example, the increasing intensity of storms combined with sea level rise will lead to coastal erosion and losses that are irreparable. For water management, there is no amount of money or government support that can help with adaptation when there is no more water available, or saltwater intrusions and rising water tables undermine coastal communities. These are also major concerns in small island states in the South Pacific and elsewhere.

Increased drought-related tree mortality and pests and disease are further concerns in New Zealand. In our marine waters, loss of kelp forests and fish habitats are likely real prospects, threatening fisheries. Human and ecosystem vulnerability are interdependent.

The report is a massive compilation of how climate change is affecting us here and now, in ways that matter to our lives. It also assesses future impacts and risks from climate hazards and the potential damages, harms, economic and other losses. It assesses vulnerabilities and how we can and must prepare for the impacts we can no longer avoid. 

That means giving bad news about heat waves, wildfires, droughts, floods, sea level rise, and the follow-on loss of lives, increasing disease, extinctions, and climate refugees. But the report also provides advice on what could be done, with proper resources and priorities. Foremost is the need to curb greenhouse gas emissions – the fundamental cause of the climate changes underway. 

Moreover, many current initiatives prioritise immediate and near-term climate risk reduction which reduces the opportunity for much needed transformational adaptation. Climate-resilient development is enabled when governments, civil society and the private sector make inclusive development choices that prioritise risk reduction, equity and justice, and when decision-making processes, finance and actions are integrated across governance levels, sectors and timeframes.

The good news is that the IPCC makes clear that we can limit the extent to which climate impacts worsen if we meet the Paris targets, but so far the world – including New Zealand – is not on track to meet those pledges.

The summary report closes with the following: “The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: Climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”

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