IPCC co-author: ‘Pretty stark material to wade through’
Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released another dire warning about our future, perfectly timed with Russia’s war on Ukraine to be almost entirely buried in the news cycle. The 3,675-page ‘Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’ report highlights the documented and projected impacts of climate change on human and ecological systems. To sum up some of the key findings of the massive document:
Climate change has brought about “widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people.” These impacts are felt the most by people living in poverty and in vulnerable areas.
Between 3.3 billion and 3.6 billion people are highly vulnerable to climate change (slightly less than half of the world’s population).
While we’re already locked in for (and experiencing) widespread damage from climate change, overshooting 1.5°C of warming will lead to increased damages, push many human systems to their limits, and likely trigger additional emissions.
The fates of humans and ecosystems are ultimately tied together, and protecting biodiversity is essential for climate resiliency. To preserve healthy ecosystems, humans will likely need to conserve between 30% to 50% of the earth’s land and water.
For additional context, I spoke with co-author Rachel Bezner Kerr of Cornell University. She was a coordinating lead author on the chapter on ‘Food, fibre, and other ecosystem products,’ and a drafting author on the report’s Summary for Policymakers.
“Climate change impacts are stressing agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and aquaculture,” Bezner Kerr said. “These observed impacts are severe and widespread especially in low and mid latitudes, but there is considerable evidence of impacts in North America.”
She noted that the report found evidence of negative impacts of climate change on major crop yields globally, and increased evidence for climate-induced extreme weather events, which can have reverberating negative effects on food systems.
“With every increase in global warming, there’s increasing severity and increasing risks that are more widespread,” said Bezner Kerr. “It’s pretty stark material to wade through for three years.”
Like all other 300-plus authors of the report, Bezner Kerr’s work for the IPCC has come as a volunteer. She said that a desire to see positive change in the world has kept her going.
“It couldn’t be more critical to take action now … and to reduce greenhouse gasses if we are going to avoid the most severe impacts,” she said. “I think it’s starting to become clear to North Americans that no one is spared from climate change impacts.”
Takeaways for the Northeast
While the IPCC expects climate impacts to be most devastating for vulnerable regions in the Global South, the report highlights some details that are especially relevant for New England.
Tropical cyclones have increased in intensity throughout the Atlantic region, with added evidence for this trend since the last IPCC Assessment Report.
The Northeastern Atlantic coast is facing compounding threats of land subsidence (gradual settling or sudden sinking) and sea level rise.
Fisheries and marine ecosystems:
Studies project harmful algal blooms (HABs) to increase across the country, with especially high impacts in the Northeast. HABs can lead to increased food toxins, decreased fishery productivity, and worse water quality.
Lobster abundances have plummeted by 78% in Southern New England but exploded by 515% in the Gulf of Maine.
Climate change has driven a 16% decline in fishing employment in New England since 1996.
Globally, ranges of marine species are moving poleward with the warming of the planet. In the Northeast, this has led to challenges for fisheries governance.
Under the most extreme emissions scenario (RCP 8.5), researchers expect marine animal biomass to decline by about 15% to 30%. The report also projects primary production (an essential component of the biological carbon pump) to drop in the region.
In the Northeast, the ski season is projected to significantly decline, even with advances in snowmaking technology — 13% by 2050 under the intermediate emissions scenario (RCP4.5), and 45% by 2080 under the high emissions scenario (RCP 8.5).
During several especially warm winters, operational profits for Northeast ski resorts have declined by about 33%.
Subscribe to Jon’s New England Climate Dispatch, a newsletter about climate justice, policy, and social movements at newenglandclimate.substack.com.
Jon is a freelance journalist and a senior at Colorado College. He oversees the school's student publications and covers environmental issues for the Catalyst newspaper. Sign up for his newsletter at newenglandclimate.substack.com.