The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), was published on February 28, 2022. The newest publication focuses on climate change impacts, adaptation, and vulnerabilities, building on the Working Group I report, released in August 2021, which explored the physical science of climate change. At the end of March 2022, the Working Group III installment of AR6, on mitigation, will be released. The report paints a grim picture of already irreversible climate threats, underscoring the importance of climate resilient development to reduce risks. “Taking action now” will determine societies’ vulnerability to climate hazards and resulting disasters and conflict.
The WGII report reflects the latest scientific consensus since the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) in 2014, stating in its Summary for Policymakers (SPM), that climate change impacts are larger in extent, magnitude, and pace than previously assessed. The report further states that while climate adaptation has increased globally, more ambitious and accelerated action is necessary to protect human and natural systems, because even if global warming is limited in the near future, not all impacts can be eliminated. Additionally, the report warns that the potential for maladaptation—when adaptation measures have unintended adverse impacts—is increasing across sectors and regions.
Tracing the climate-security nexus
The report’s findings have important implications for security risks ranging from individual security to regional stability. Climate change has already caused irreversible damage to natural and human systems, reduces food and water security, and harms human physical and mental health. Importantly, the report highlights that multiple climate and non-climatic hazards will occur simultaneously, resulting in compounding overall risks that can cascade across sectors. As climate impacts increase transboundary risks across resource sectors, including water, food and energy, there is an increasing need for climate-informed management and cooperation. While the report identifies non-climatic factors as the main drivers of conflict to date, it emphasizes that extreme weather and climate events can have adverse impacts on conflict as well as humanitarian crises.
Though the entire report highlights important concerns for future human and ecosystem security, there are two important themes for security actors; (1) Risk and vulnerability deepen where poor governance and climate change intersect and mutually reinforce each other, creating compound fallout. (2) Concerted action on both adaptation and mitigation measures are needed immediately to reduce risks to communities before the slim window of time for action closes.
Risk and vulnerability deepen at the confluence of poor governance and climate change
In the near-term, vulnerability and exposure of natural and human systems to climate-related risks will depend more on the actions taken to adapt, or lack thereof, than on climate hazards themselves. The report states that, already “vulnerability is higher in locations with poverty, governance challenges, and limited access to basic services and resources, violent conflict, and high levels of climate-sensitive livelihoods.”—making almost half of the world’s population highly vulnerable to climate change. These findings reflect analyses by the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS) in the World Climate and Security Report 2021.
The report highlights a number of non-climatic factors that magnify climate hazards, including poor governance or lack of governance. This includes land management issues— like patterns of settlement (e.g. many informal settlements are in flood plains) and siting of infrastructure (e.g. encroachment of housing into the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI))—which increase losses in the wake of climate hazards. Beyond land management, vulnerability to climate impacts is higher where poor resource management by governments prevents adequate provision of basic resources.
WGII demonstrates the catastrophic effects of human-made climate change on ecosystems and people, making fundamental systemic change and real sustainable development an immediate priority. Yet, vulnerability substantially differs among and within regions, and marginalized groups will be the worst affected by climate change impacts, especially in developing and middle-income countries, as they are most often reliant on climate-sensitive livelihoods such as fishing or agriculture. Thus, climate change responses including adaptation and relief must be developed and deployed equitably to minimize associated security risks.
Adaptation and mitigation are key to human security in the face of climate impacts
The report shows that global climate adaptation efforts are increasing and largely effective in managing risk, yet also finds an adaptation gap and unequal distribution, especially in lower income countries. As increased warming decreases the effectiveness of adaptation, implementing integrated, multi-sectoral adaptation measures will reduce communities’ vulnerability to climate risks. This is especially important given that WGII shows that the limits of adaptation have already been reached in certain ecosystems.
In many cases, adaptation is severely constrained by financial, institutional, and technological access and capacity. While global climate finance has increased since AR5, most of it is earmarked for mitigation efforts and the funds for adaptation are insufficient to provide the amount of adaptation needed, especially in developing countries. Mitigating emissions and further warming remains an important part of managing and reducing risks, but the world has already reached many tipping points that make some climate change-related impacts unavoidable. This makes investing specifically in climate adaptation crucial for future safety and security.
However, the report warns that incidences of “maladaptation”—actions taken with adaptation in mind, but which may lead to increased risk of adverse climate-related outcomes—are becoming more common. This is especially true when adaptation efforts are focused on sectors and risks in isolation, and when the goals are short-term and do not consider long-term climatic changes. The impacts of maladaptation can be most harmful to marginalized and vulnerable groups, increasing exposure to risks and inequity. For example, construction of dams and water reservoirs in the Mekong River basin, shifts vulnerability to floods and droughts, as well as conflict susceptibility to downstream countries. To avoid maladaptation, adaptation actions should be flexible, multi-sectoral, inclusive, and incorporate long-term planning.
Urgency for action to secure the future
Given the rapidly-increasing intensity of climate hazards, the Working Group II report underlines the urgency with which adaptation and mitigation need to be pursued. It makes it clear that “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” . Yet the report also provides some hope that with concerted action including effective and equitable adaptation and mitigation into development strategies, vulnerability can be reduced, ecosystems conserved and restored, and equitable development assured.