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IPCC Says Climate Change is Here, World Needs to Adapt

The overall warming of the planet has had a clear impact on Earth’s natural systems and human society and will pose increased – and potentially disastrous – risks in the future if the world does not make a more concerted effort to adapt and try to prevent the worst possible outcomes.

That’s the continued message from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations-established body made up of hundreds of scientists who review and summarize the state of climate science and the research into its impacts, ways to adapt to them and ways to mitigate the damage.

Global average surface temperature change to date in degrees Celsius.
Credit: IPCC Working Group I

The impacts of climate change and the ways in which both humans and nature can adapt to an altered environment are the focus of the second part of the IPCC’s fifth assessment report, which was released on Sunday. It follows the September release of the first portion of the report, which focused on the scientific evidence for global warming and stated unequivocally that humans are behind the warming of Earth’s average temperature.

Climate change has already contributed to a 1.6°F rise in global average temperature since the start of the 20th century and the rate of warming is likely to increase into the 21st century. The second report makes clear that in addition to a change in the global average temperature, other climate change impacts observed to date have hit all regions of the world and affected everything from access to food and water to extreme weather. 

“In view of these impacts, and those that we have projected for the future, no one on this planet is going to be untouched by climate change,” Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the IPCC, said in the press conference announcing the report’s conclusions.

The report has fewer specific predictions of future impacts compared to the last iteration released in 2007, but points out the significant risks climate impacts pose to globe's most vulnerable populations. It also has a greater emphasis on adaptation strategies, which range from improving urban infrastructure to creating drought-resistant crop varieties.

Compared to 2007’s report, the newest iteration “assesses a substantially larger knowledge base of relevant literature,” which allowed those assembling the report to consider a wider range of impacts, said Patricia Romero-Lankao, an author on the report and a sociologist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo.

IPCC Working Group II Summary for Policymakers

Among the impacts of climate change that are already occurring, the report calls out: shifts in the ranges of species and changes to migration patterns, which could alter where key ecosystems such as valuable fisheries are found; changes in precipitation patterns, which affect the availability of water for drinking and agriculture; the effects of climate extremes on crops, which could threaten food supplies and the livelihoods of the world’s farmers; and increases in health impacts, for example the number of deaths from heat waves, like the one that killed thousands in Europe in 2003.

All of these impacts are also listed as major future concerns around the world. The report also calls out sea-level rise as a major future concern, as it contributes to coastal flooding and higher storms surges – issues that particularly affect those in low-lying coastal areas, where a substantial portion of the world’s poor live. Extreme weather events could also damage critical infrastructure, even in developed countries, if steps aren’t taken to strengthen it, as Hurricane Sandy’s inundation of sewage systems and New York City’s subway system made clear.

The report also warns that climate change could exacerbate problems, such as drought, that lead to conflicts around the world through migrations and disputes over resources.

“Climate change can lead to displacement, can lead to increased conflict,” Pachauri said.

All of these impacts are expected to worsen in the coming decades if society fails to adapt to the changes that are already in play because of warming “locked in” to the climate system by past greenhouse gas emissions and if it fails to enact any meaningful measures to curtail future emissions, the report makes clear. The more warming, the more dire the future impacts become.

“Increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts,” the report warns.

The first part of the fifth assessment report stated that global temperatures are likely to exceed 2.7°F above preindustrial levels by the end of the century but could reach as high as 8.64°F above 1986-2005 levels, depending on the levels of future emissions. At the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, governments agreed to keep future warming below 3.6°F, which the report suggested was unlikely to happen because of the warming that past emissions have guaranteed. The third part of the assessment, focused on ways to mitigate climate change, will be released on April 13 after a meeting in Berlin.

The report examines the efforts at adaptation that have been made around the world to date, which vary widely between regions, and those that should be considered for the future.  Strategies mentioned in the report vary from establishing better building codes to spreading more efficient irrigation practices, with many that would provide benefits to society even without climate change.

A map showing the impacts climate change has had on human and natural systems and the level of confidence in those impacts.
Credit: IPCC Working Group I

“A lot of these things make sense anyway,” said Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist also from NCAR, who was not involved with this report but has been an author and editor on past IPCC reports.

Trenberth suggested the report could be improved by noting which adaptations strategies would have the biggest impact and how costs for them would be covered. He did applaud the group for noting funding gaps for adaptation, which are particularly affecting developing nations, which are expected to see impacts out of proportion to what they have contributed to global warming.

Romero-Lankao said that the process of putting together the report was an educational one for her, illuminating the process of international negotiations.

“We scientists think that all what is needed from us in these negotiations is to ensure accuracy, balance, and clarity of message in our findings. That is not the case for policy makers for whom a lot is at stake,” Romero-Lankao told Climate Central in an email.

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By Kenneth Richard (Taylorville, IL 62568)
on April 1st, 2014

What year or span of years did humans take over as the primary causers of weather and climate change? 

Prior to the human takeover, what natural factors caused weather and climate to change?  What natural factors caused the planet to climatically emerge out of the last ice age (12,000 years ago)?

How do we know that these natural factors no longer have a significant influence on weather and climate change? 

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By Genie Robinson (78832)
on April 4th, 2014

Human activity began to affect climate in the 50’s when industry was revolutionized and emissions from facfories, vehicles, coal consumption and other industry began to pour into the atmosphere.

The earth’s atmosphere has always cycled, cold to hot then to cold again.  But, historically, it’s a slow process except when caused by massive meteor or comet strike or major volcanic activity.  Science can examine trees, ice, and sediment layers to determine what might have been affecting the climate over many millions of years.  But CO2 has never poured into the atmosphere before as it has since the industrial evolution and temperatures (global temps) have never risen so quickly without some natural cause.  I’m no scientist, but I believe I have read that global temps have never risen so fast, period. Major volcanic activity tends to cause cooling.  I’m unsure how massive meteor strikes have affected climate oever hundreds of years, but I do know that at least one strike caused a massive die-of on the planet. But there have been several die-offs. It wouldn’t be.difficult for you to look them up.

We know what’s causing the current state of warming, which is happening at an unprecedented speed, and thats carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  And we know the source of all that Co2 (and other greenhouse gases), humans.  There is simply no other source for the vast amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

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By Jon Do (Fayette/TN/37334)
on April 1st, 2014

I would be much more interested if their report had begun with a detailed assessment of the accuracy of the predictions in their previous four reports.

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By Genie Robinson (78832)
on April 4th, 2014

They aren’t hiding their data.  It’s always available for review.  Liks to the published (and peer reviewed) papers are not at all difficult to find.  You want the accuracy of the data asessed, it has been That’s what peer reviewed means.  And if climate data is debunked by others in the field, then the data is chunked and not used.

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By Genie Robinson (78832)
on April 4th, 2014

Scroll down to “Downloads” then to “Questions about the report.”  You can read all about how accuracy of their reports are assessed.

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By Ned Boudreau (Watersmeet/MI/49969)
on April 2nd, 2014

If people would only read the science
What a change there would be.
I guess most Americans are too busy going to church.

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By Genie Robinson (78832)
on April 4th, 2014

Amen, Mr. Boudreau.  Willful ignorance.  And there will be no going back to fix their mistake.

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