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Calculated Risk
A massive scientific report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says global warming will affect every continent, every ocean, and every one of us.

Climate change is putting you at risk. It’s not personal. It’s coming for all of us in some way. We don’t know when and how (exactly), but it’s coming, and we need to be prepared for whatever it brings.

Oh, and we should get on that, pronto.

That’s the gist of the latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released earlier today in Yokohama, Japan. The draft assesses the impacts that global warming will have on human civilization and how we might adapt to them, as well as who is most vulnerable to the coming disruptions in food supplies, infrastructure, global trade, and more.

“Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change,” IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri, told reporters at a press conference, nicely summing up the climate panel's conclusions.

According to the IPCC (and the more than 12,000 scientific papers it referenced in the completion of the report): “The striking feature of observed impacts is that they are occurring from the tropics to the poles, from small islands to large continents, and from the wealthiest countries to the poorest.”

But if you’re looking for specific predictions of how much rain will fall in this particular spot or sea will rise in that particular spot, you won’t find many of them in the report’s 30 chapters. What you will find is hundreds of the world’s leading climatologists telling you that the climate is already changing and it will eventually put billions of lives and livelihoods at risk, most notably, those of the poor.

Here is a taste of some of those risks:

  • From the report: Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability.
  • “The report was among the most sobering yet issued by the intergovernmental panel,” writes Justin Gillis in the New York Times. “It cited the risk of death or injury on a widespread scale, probable damage to public health, displacement of people and potential mass migrations.”
  • Steven Mufson reports for the Washington Post: "The [IPCC] said that climate change is already hurting the poor, wreaking havoc on the infrastructure of coastal cities, lowering crop yields, endangering various plant and animal species, and forcing many marine organisms to flee hundreds of miles to cooler waters."
  • “Regardless of whether our car is speeding at 90 miles an hour or 85 miles an hour, we are still in the danger zone. The time has come to put on the brakes,” says NRDC President Frances Beinecke (note: NRDC publishes OnEarth). “The single most important thing we can do to protect our communities from climate change is to reduce dangerous carbon pollution.”
  • "If you have a crisis in two or three places around the world, suddenly it's not a local crisis. It is a global crisis, and the repercussions of things going bad in several different places are very severe," Saleemul Haq, an IPCC author and senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development, tells The Guardian.
  • “There is a more optimistic tone about our ability to adapt to some of these things. We’ve had some bad heat waves and coastal storms, and we have a better idea of what we need to do. Whether we will ever do it, I don’t know,” says scientist and IPCC co-author Michael Oppenheimer, adding: “everyone agrees that if we don’t slow the warming down, our prospects for adaptation are not good.”

Compared to its last major publication, the 4th Assessment Report issued seven years ago, the IPCC is now more cautious about giving detailed projections of what’s going to happen and when. And for good reason, considering that some of those overly precise predictions proved troublesome the last time around. Instead, the IPCC has now decided that time is better spent on helping and encouraging governments to prepare for this shitstorm than on defending the science that tells us (with 95 percent certainty) that it is coming.

The debate is settled, in other words, and the IPCC—along with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which released a similar risk-based climate report earlier this month—is moving on.

And, as the report happily notes, governments and policymakers are beginning to respond, by implementing measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and preparing their cities, coastlines, and agricultural lands for one of the biggest risk-management challenges humanity may ever face.

“Climate-change adaptation is not an exotic agenda that has never been tried,” says biologist IPCC co-chair Chris Field. “Governments, firms, and communities around the world are building experience with adaptation. This experience forms a starting point for bolder, more ambitious adaptations that will be important as climate and society continue to change.”

And that’s where the third installment of this latest report, to be released in April, will come in. Now that it has explained what’s at stake, the IPCC will tackle how we might mitigate these risks across the globe.

And none to soon. As journalist Andrew Freedman explains, “Each molecule of carbon dioxide, which is the most important long-lived manmade greenhouse gas, can remain in the atmosphere for as many as 1,000 years.” In other words, at least a millennium’s worth of our children is counting on what we do with all of this information.

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image of melissa mahony
Melissa Mahony is OnEarth.org's senior editor. She previously worked at Wildlife Conservation magazine, blogged about energy for SmartPlanet, and has written for many publications about science and the environment. MORE STORIES ➔