‘Humans cannot endlessly adapt to climate change,’ experts warn

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A weak and emaciated cow affected by the worsening drought due to failed rain seasons, lays down at a water point in Kenya. Photo: Thomas Mukoya / reuters
A weak and emaciated cow affected by the worsening drought due to failed rain seasons, lays down at a water point in Kenya. Photo: Thomas Mukoya / reuters

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Approximately 1.6 billion people in the world currently live in hotspots that are particularly vulnerable to the climate crisis, and that number is projected to double by 2050.

A report, titled 10 New Insights in Climate Science, compiled by leading global natural and social scientists and presented at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt on Thursday, points out that climate-driven hazard mortality is 15 times higher in hotspot countries than in less vulnerable countries.

Regional vulnerability hotspots are clustered in central America, Asia, the Middle East and several regions in Africa: the Sahel (a region in north Africa), as well as central and east Africa.

“Although humans often act as if we have a unique and controlling position in the natural world, the health of our societies is intertwined with natural systems. 

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“Bit by bit, climate change and worsening climate extremes are chipping away at the resilience of physical, ecological, socioeconomic and sociocultural systems, putting people and livelihoods at risk,” the report warns.

“The worst impacts are felt in places with existing, systemic vulnerability linked to poverty, forced migration, inequality and state fragility.”

In the most vulnerable countries, the report says, the deaths related to floods, drought and storms are 15 times higher than in the least vulnerable countries, and each hotspot has its unique economic, ecological and political conditions.

Parts of central Africa and the Middle East, for example, have been associated with high levels of state fragility. Meanwhile, displacement, coupled with low livelihood security, contributes to vulnerability in countries in central Africa, east Africa and west Africa, and southwest Asia

“Gender inequality exacerbates vulnerability to significant climate-driven natural hazards since women are already exposed to disproportionate risks to health and income through structural disadvantage,” says the report.

A chilling warning the scientists give is that humans cannot endlessly adapt to the changing climate. They say that adaptation is not a substitute for mitigation of climate change effects, and recommend that making deep and swift efforts is critical to avoid the widespread breaching of limits to adaptation.

“We are already breaching adaptation limits, and adaptation will only become more difficult as we approach 1.5°C or even 2°C average global warming.

“This implies that the remaining available adaptive actions will be even more demanding, which, in turn, can create more social stress and further risks.” 

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The climate crisis, the report says, interacts with other risk drivers, for example, conflicts and pandemics, as well as existing development challenges, resulting in system effects such as food shortages and rising poverty and inequality.

SINGLE BIGGEST THREAT FACING HUMANITY

The scientists say that research consistently reveals compounding and cascading risks of climate change on human, animal and environmental health.

The World Health Organization, they say, has described climate change as the single biggest health threat facing humanity. These risks have the potential to slow advances made in population health over the past decades and disrupt functioning health systems.

Climate change is already responsible for 37% of heat-related deaths globally and every continent is experiencing increased heat-related mortality.

Says the report: 

Most attribution studies probably underestimate the numbers of deaths, illnesses, hours of lost productivity and adverse economic consequences

Heat exposure also results in adverse reproductive outcomes such as premature birth, low birth weight, stillbirth and lower sperm production.

“Infectious diseases are likely to increase due to climate change, especially waterborne and vector-borne diseases, as evidenced by increased childhood diarrhoeal disease being observed in some regions during extreme weather events.”

Climate change also brings an increase in cross-species viral transmission risk, and zoonotic virus spillover and spread in humans is more likely, especially at high elevations, in biodiversity hotspots and in areas of high human population density in Asia and Africa.

“Increasing impacts are also observed among plants and animals. For example, wildfires, extreme heat, drought and flooding events affect livestock health and production, fisheries and populations of wild animals.

“Increases in the spread and severity of animal and plant diseases can then affect food security and ecosystem functions. This risk has resulted in the increased use of pesticides and antimicrobials.”

READ: 'We are on a highway to climate hell' - António Guterres

MIGRATION AS AN ADAPTATION STRATEGY

Migration has served as an important strategy to adapt to adverse climate impacts, especially in the rural contexts of low- and middle-income countries.

Climate impacts can accelerate various mobility responses ranging from internal rural-urban migration to temporary involuntary displacement, the scientists say.

“A crucial yet often overlooked aspect in the policy arena is that adverse climate effects can also render socioeconomically vulnerable groups immobile, hindering their ability to adapt.

“This can happen, for example, as adverse climate effects diminish people’s resources to engage in migration as an adaptation, which is costly.”

People in the poorest regions of the world will most likely not migrate, according to evidence from Cambodia, Nicaragua, Peru, Uganda, Vietnam and Bangladesh, which shows that low levels of education and income are generally related to a lower likelihood of migration after experiencing sudden onset climate events

However, some people – as illustrated by case studies from Chilean Patagonia, as well as Fiji and Tuvalu in the Pacific Ocean – choose to stay despite extreme climate events.

CLIMATE CHANGE AND SECURITY LINKED

The report says that human security and climate change interact in insidious “vicious circles” that drive short- and long-term action, and impacts can exacerbate tension and existing violent conflicts.

“A variety of global governance bodies, including the UN Security Council, have recognised that climate and security are linked in complex ways and that the impacts of this interaction vary widely within and among countries.”

For example, ice loss in the Arctic due to climate heating has led to increased international security concerns, with countries developing their military capacity there and availing themselves of expanded maritime transportation channels and natural resource extraction opportunities.

READ: Show us the money: Developing world at COP27 seeks finance details

RADICAL SHIFT IN LAND USE

The scientists advise that a radical shift in land use is required to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“Agricultural expansion is a major driver of forest loss in the tropics and thus a key driver of greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss and the degradation of ecosystem services vital to the livelihoods of nature-dependent and rural people,” they say.

Climate mitigation through land-use change can support multiple co-benefits, for instance, preventing the conversion of natural forests.

“Meanwhile, the impacts of climate change (such as from droughts and extreme weather events) on agricultural yields are already affecting land systems, reducing ecological and social resilience.”

Russia’s war on Ukraine, the report says, has shown how globally interdependent agricultural supply chains can increase food system vulnerability, aggravating food insecurity and leading to repercussions for landscapes and people across the globe.


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