The take-away from the latest U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report could hardly be more stark: The globe is warming, and it’s already impacting every continent and the oceans. In order to avoid widespread food and water insecurity, waves of human migration, more frequent civil war, ocean acidification, and a severe global economic contraction, governments must act quickly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and invest in things like barriers to protect from rising seal levels and storm surges to setting up insurance schemes to cover agricultural losses during severe drought.
“No matter what we do,” says Christopher B. Field, a professor of interdisciplinary environmental studies at Stanford University and one of the report’s authors, “we are already going to have impacts that we need to adjust to.”
Among the more surprising findings of the IPCC report, which took into account more than 12,000 scientific papers and received upwards of 50,000 comments on draft versions, is the degree to which it is not just failed states or poor countries that are getting hit by climate shocks. “In previous assessments there was a lot of emphasis put on vulnerability in the poorest parts of the world,” says Field. “What the new report concludes is that we see vulnerability around the world in rich countries, as well as poor, and in areas that you would think of as well defended.”
The same day the IPCC released its report, the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) at the Heartland Institute—which has long denied global warming—published its own findings on climate change. Global warming may be happening, the report’s authors write, but it’s a good thing. “Terrestrial ecosystems have thrived throughout the world as a result of warming temperatures and rising levels of atmospheric CO2,” the Institute report says, and the human population will most likely see a “net reduction in human mortality from temperature-related events.”
The dueling reports bring the seemingly intractable politics of climate change into sharp focus: As the world’s pre-eminent body of climate researchers warns with increasing certainty of the severe consequences of a warming world, the opposition steps up its misinformation campaign. Field points out that there is little research to support the claims of the Heartland Institute, which advocates for “free-market solutions to social and economics problems” and received over $76 million in donations from foundations that deny climate change. “There are a few studies from a few individuals that conclude that the benefits might outweigh the liabilities, especially with a little bit of warming,” says Field. “But the majority of the studies available conclude that, even now, we are seeing the liabilities outstrip the benefits by a large fraction.”
The IPCC spells out in its typical jargon-laden manner how each region of the globe might address its vulnerabilities and argues that doing this sooner rather than later will help reduce the risk of loss of life and property. Yet despite increasing clarity from the group and greater specificity on how to address climate change, politics continues to trump science, particularly in the United States.
“In several countries, including the U.S.,” says Field, “I believe the most important problem is resistance to facing up to the fact of climate change. And if you’re still debating whether or not climate change is real, it’s really hard to put forward the resources to understand the adaptation options.”