New IPCC report connects the dots on climate change, biodiversity and human society

The latest IPCC report focuses strongly on the interlinkages between climate change, biodiversity and human society. Photo by juggadery/Wikimedia Commons.

The latest IPCC report focuses strongly on the interlinkages between climate change, biodiversity and human society. Photo by juggadery/Wikimedia Commons.

  • Climate change is imperiling human well-being and planetary health, says a United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, focusing strongly on interactions between climate, biodiversity and human society.
  • Mental health challenges, including anxiety and stress, are expected to increase under further global warming, particularly for children, adolescents, the elderly, and those with underlying health conditions, according to the report.
  • The report, recognising climate justice and indigenous and local knowledge in adaptation, also warns of maladaptations that could worsen inequalities and reduce resilience of ecosystems.
  • It provides a climate-resilient development pathway, to meet adaptation, mitigation, and sustainable development goals simultaneously.

Climate change is imperilling human well-being and planetary health and any further delay in global concerted anticipatory action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future, says the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released earlier this week.

It notes that “the rise in weather and climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt” and the limitations to adaptation-effectiveness of available options “decreases with every increment of warming.”

The report Climate Change 2022 Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability by ‘Working Group II’ is the second installment of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), which will be completed in 2022. The IPCC, a United Nations body, has three working groups: Working Group I, dealing with the physical science basis of climate change; Working Group II, dealing with impacts, adaptation and vulnerability; and Working Group III, dealing with the mitigation of climate change.

What is the climate change report AR6? Why is it relevant to India?

“While action on adaptation (and mitigation) is being taken across the world, there are growing gaps with regard to avoiding and reducing risks, as well as dealing with impacts and risks that are not avoided (or reduced) due to financial, institutional, technical constraints. For example, flood impacts and risks are not reduced to zero (there is a residual risk) everywhere, as it is generally not possible to protect against rare and expensive floods. E.g. in many places around the world flood protection is up to 50 years. More has been considered too costly. With climate risks rising, this is however being reconsidered,” said IIASA’s Reinhard Mechler and lead author on Chapter 17 of the report.

“The 1.5 degree Celsius global ambition on climate mitigation is real: beyond this warming level, impacts and risks will become increasingly existential and irreversible,” Mechler said.

More than any other previous reports, the AR6 installment also goes into greater detail on the linkages between human-induced climate change (including more frequent and intense extreme events) and its impacts on the physical health and mental health of people, focusing strongly on interactions between climate, ecosystems (including their biodiversity) and human society.

“Studies of climate anxiety are still fairly small in number, but evidence suggests that those who are more at risk of climate impacts, and younger adults (as compared to older adults), show higher levels (of climate anxiety),” IPCC AR6 WGII lead author Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster, USA, told Mongabay-India.

The WGII report recognises climate justice, equity and indigenous knowledge and local knowledge as important elements for adaptation, weaving in risks associated with complex, compound and cascading extremes and sharply underlines the dangers of getting adaptation wrong by pointing to “increasing evidence” of maladaptation, most often an unintended consequence, across many sectors and regions.

Maladaptations are actions that may lead to increased risk of adverse outcomes such as increased greenhouse gas emissions, increased or shifted vulnerability to climate change and inequity. The report interlinks historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism to drivers of vulnerability of ecosystems and people to climate change. “We have enough evidence to show that past development trajectories, and histories of colonialism and resource extraction, shape present vulnerability and adaptive capacity,” tweeted Chandni Singh, lead author of the Asia chapter of the assessment.

“Further, current actions shape future adaptation pathways. What we do now will either move us forward towards climate resilience or lock us into maladaptive outcomes,” Singh told Mongabay-India.

WGII author and Wildlife Institute of India scientist Gautam Talukdar says that “most of the time, you have many unintended consequences whenever you enlarge any scheme to a mega-scale and in different geographies.” “An adaptation for one geographic zone could become a maladaptation in other geographies. There is no one-size-fits-all adaptation option and the available options should be integrated with other agreements and policies that India is a signatory to, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Paris Agreement, among others,” Talukdar told Mongabay-India.

In a first, the report, focusing on solutions, provides a solutions framework (Climate Resilient Development or CRD) that combines climate adaptation with actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation) to improve nature’s and people’s well-being. For Asia, options such as climate-smart agriculture, ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction, investing in urban blue-green infrastructure present opportunities to meet adaptation, mitigation, and sustainable development goals simultaneously.  While public finance is an important enabler for adaptation, current global financial flows in adaptation, including in the private and public sectors, are insufficient for adaptation, especially for developing countries.

Nature-based solutions, such as the restoration of Bhojtal wetlands in Bhopal in central India, expand the climate solutions portfolio but they cannot be regarded as an alternative to, or a reason to delay, deep emission cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Nature-based solutions are themselves vulnerable to climate change impacts, the report states.

The Indian government has welcomed the report, stating, in a press release, that the country is walking the path of climate-resilient development and has demonstrated a clear resolve to move ahead along a sustainable, resource-efficient growth path. Reiterating India’s vulnerability to sea-level rise, floods, heat and humidity stress, water scarcity and loss in crop production, WGII report flags that increased climate variability and extreme events are already driving migration in Asia and long-term climate change will likely increase migration flows across the region.

Planning ahead of time to reduce climate anxiety

The WGII report reflects the growing emphasis on addressing mental health challenges, including anxiety and stress, in vulnerable populations. Climate anxiety is expected to increase under further global warming, particularly for children, adolescents, the elderly, and those with underlying health conditions, the report conveys. Improving surveillance, access to mental health care, and monitoring of psychosocial impacts from extreme weather events could reduce mental health risks linked to climate change.

IPCC author Susan Clayton points out that the impacts of extreme weather events on mental health are the most obvious. “Decades of research show statistically significant increases in the incidence of things like post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression for those affected by major storms, wildfires, or floods. The strength of the impact will depend on a variety of other factors, such as the amount of personal exposure, availability of support services, and other sources of stress,” explained Clayton.

For example, a year after the super cyclone in Odisha in 1999 in eastern India, Indian researchers noted the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in a significant percentage of adolescent girls. After the extremely severe cyclone Fani in 2019, local community members in affected coastal areas in Odisha displayed symptoms of adjustment disorder (AD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and some are displaying signs of acute stress disorder (ASD), they said.

As for the gradual impacts of climate change on mental health, the maximum evidence is available for the impact of rising temperatures, says Clayton. Research shows that people who experience repeated disasters show greater impacts on mental health, notes Clayton, adding that mental health is not automatically impaired by any given event, and most people are resilient. “This means there is a lot of room to affect that response. Making mental health part of the policy conversation, so that mental health services are available to people and there is outreach to ask people about their mental health, will help.”

“Community responders who are not necessarily mental health professionals can be trained to provide psychological first aid. Mental health is also enhanced if people feel more confident that the situation is under control – that the government has planned ahead of time how to care for citizens who are experiencing extreme weather events, such as having planned shelters available,” she added.

Maladaptations affect biodiversity and ecosystem resilience

The WGII installment cites studies of biodiversity and habitat loss of plants and animals linked to climate change in some parts of Asia. In India’s Darjeeling district, for example, significant change in lichen community structure was shown in response to climate change and pollution and a warming-driven range shift was recorded in a major percentage of endemic plant species in the Sikkim Himalayas. Warming stress is expected to trigger a change in the distribution of plants and animal species in Asia until 2100.

Warming and increased frequency, severity and duration of extreme events will place many terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems at high or very high risks of biodiversity loss by 2040, it said, sharing evidence that climate-related stresses are already affecting mangrove forests (Sundarbans and the Andamans and Nicobar Islands) and coral reefs (Palk Bay) along the Indian coastline; extreme events, such as tropical cyclones, are impacting the ecology and resource abundance of coastal waters.

Further, it cautions that maladaptive actions can dent biodiversity and ecosystem resilience and also constrain ecosystem services. IPCC author Gautam Talukdar described the dangers of ill-planned and unscientific tree plantation programs in India.

“You can’t raise tree plantations everywhere. If you start planting trees along the coastline because there is space available, you change the habitat of this coastline and convert a beach habitat to forested habitat which can have unintended dangerous consequences for biodiversity, such as impairing the nesting grounds for olive ridley turtles in the coastline, which has happened in Odisha in India.”

“The other thing that can happen is the moment you start planting along the beaches, because the soil becomes more stable in those areas, the water has to ingress in other places and erosion will take place in those other places,” Talukdar told Mongabay-India. A majority of plantation programmes in India, he says, also rely on species that grow fast and are easy to maintain, such as eucalyptus, Prosopis sp etc. “They do perform the function of harnessing carbon but they also impact the biodiversity of that area.”

The concerns on tree plantation efforts also come amid recent discussions on such efforts in India’s savannah grasslands that harm biodiversity.

Environmentalist Ravi Chellam, who was not associated with the IPCC assessment underscores that the report presents evidence of the long-term negative consequences of human actions in the name of economic development and even adaptation to climate change.

“This is especially true with cases where technological and civil engineering-driven solutions have been implemented to deal with what are essentially ecological and environmental issues. Sea walls to protect coastal communities is a good example of how we end up destroying local ecology and even livelihoods, while diverting the problem of coastal erosion and rising sea level to other locations. Widespread and sustained irrigation in marginal lands ends up destroying the soil, severely depleting groundwater resources and introducing diseases to which the local communities have not been exposed before,” Chellam, CEO, Metastring Foundation and member, Biodiversity Collaborative, told Mongabay-India.

“Destroying natural ecosystems, especially various types of forests and then trying to compensate for this loss by creating species-poor plantations is another example of how our approach to climate change mitigation ends up creating more problems than it solves. The report has very strongly emphasised the value of functional and interconnected natural ecosystems for mitigation of climate change and this has a strong message for the development model that India pursues,” he added.

Read more: IPCC report warns India likely to see more extreme weather events

Banner image: The latest IPCC report focuses strongly on the interlinkages between climate change, biodiversity and human society. Photo by juggadery/Wikimedia Commons.

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