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Time is running out to avoid the worst hazards from climate change, U.N. report warns

Irma flooding
Miami Herald archives
The latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found hazards like worsening storms and higher temperatures are already taking a toll on economies and public health.

Efforts to curb planet-warming emissions need to dramatically speed up to avoid a host of catastrophic impacts threatening the planet, according to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

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In Florida and across North America, those threats are already harming communities and ecosystems and will worsen even under temperature goals set by the 2015 Paris accord.

“If we do not increase ambition in reducing emissions of heat trapping gases now … we will increasingly encounter hard limits on how far our efforts go to deal with the climate in real time as it is changing,” said Katharine Mach, one of the reports lead authors and a climate scientist at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

“Without coordination of action by governments and by households, by people on their commute and by the private sector,” she said, “we're not going to get far enough in making sure adaptive efforts keep people safe.”

The report, compiled by 270 researchers in 67 countries, is the sixth issued by the UN since 1990. It is the first, Mach said, to critique the ongoing efforts to cut emissions and fortify communities. Researchers looked at a wide swath of potential risks, from threats to food supplies and housing, to economies and wetlands and wildlife.

In keeping with other reports, the latest installment also provides a clear snapshot of ongoing impacts and current understanding of the science behind them.

“At this point, it is not only unambiguous that warming is unequivocal, it's due to us, our emissions of heat-trapping gas,” Mach said. “These are now widespread and, in many cases, dangerous impacts that we see on every single continent of the globe.”

The researchers found temperatures have already risen by about 2 degrees Farenheit in the last two centuries, and that has changed the planet profoundly. Heat waves are increasing mortality rates. Rising ocean and ground temperatures have reordered ecosystems, forcing plants and animals to move or perish. Changes are also amplifying threats to vulnerable people often defined by their sex, age and socio-economic status. Imperiled places, like South Florida’s Everglades, and iconic species that inhabit vulnerable areas like the Key deer, also face more peril.

Coral reefs that protect the coast and extend into the Caribbean would be mostly lost as temperatures rise, the report warned. Above 2.7 degrees, up to 90% of reef-building corals would die. At 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the report said 99% would be lost.

“A lot of the learning is making sure we are prepared enough and also grappling with the fact that when the climate matters, it often is because of the cascades: multiple things going wrong at once, whether it's a storm and a heat wave or the changing climate and a pandemic,” Mach said.

In South Florida, billions are being spent to fend off rising seas and worsening impacts. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could spend up to $4.6 billion on flood gates, sea walls and other measures to protect communities around Biscayne Bay. But the fixes need to do more to protect natural systems and be meted out more equitably, the authors warn.

“Current practices will be increasingly insufficient to adapt to climate induced risks,” they wrote, “without equitable and transformative adaptation policies focused on sustainable and resilient land use, consumption patterns, economic activities and nature-based solutions.”

This report also takes careful steps to spell out the inequities caused by many of the mitigation and adaptation strategies.

“The experience of the changing climate is very different across households, across countries,” Mach said. “And that's what we in particular need to worry about.”

That may mean reconsidering U.S. federal funding that requires cost-benefit analyses that emphasize property over people.

“If we were to just unthinkingly take that forward, we might reduce climate risk by some definitions,” Mach said. “But extremely rural areas throughout our country may get basically zero investments because the cost-benefit comparisons aren't going to work out as compared to protecting a major metropolitan hub.”

Many of the fixes also remain hampered by fragmented efforts to implement them, the report warned.

“While community-level planning tailors adaptation to the local context, misalignment of policies within and between levels of government can prevent implementation,” the report said.

In Florida, communities have been mostly left on their own to plan for impacts. Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed the state’s first resilience chief in 2019, but the position has already been filled three times. A bill now before the Florida legislature would establish a resilience office under the governor and require a statewide assessment of flooding vulnerability.

The state’s Democratic agriculture commissioner has also launched a rule-making process for the state to reach net-zero by 2050 and force utilities to switch to renewable energy, but it could wind up being a symbolic gesture if the state commission that oversees utilities fails to enforce it.

Misinformation about climate change also remains a barrier, the report warned.

Florida appears repeatedly in the thousands of pages that make up the report, from the Everglades appearing on a list of biodiversity hotspots to a reported $465 million in real estate loss due to tidal flooding recorded between 2005 and 2016. The state is also cited as an example of the risk of ‘green gentrification,’ where adaptation efforts can increase property values and force out poorer residents.

The multiple threats already being felt by Florida have helped other locations understand the potential hazards, Mach said. But how the state has dealt with them has also revealed some critical missteps.

“We have siloed our different activities of water management and roads, and the changing climate is now making us realize that to move all of this in tandem, we have to rethink some of those patterns of how historically we've created a predictable, steady, vibrant place to live,” she said.

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
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