TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Human-caused climate change has already caused widespread damage to people and nature, and the impacts will become increasingly irreversible as the planet continues to warm. That’s the overarching takeaway from the most comprehensive report on climate impacts ever produced.

The report named “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” was released Monday by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – a scientific body under the umbrella of the UN, comprised of all 195 nations of the World.

The assessment is a warning for Florida’s delicate natural environment and the people that depend on it, highlighting just how vulnerable our coastal ecosystems are to warming waters and rising sea-levels. With continued warming, the report speaks of irreversible consequences such as sea level rise, loss and degradation of coral reefs and low-lying coastal wetlands, and unavoidable losses from increasing climate hazards.

This lengthy and technical release, aimed at informing policymakers, is part of the 6th cycle of assessments since the IPCC’s creation in 1988. The IPCC releases a series of 3 reports each cycle – every 5 to 7 years – assessing and summarizing the status of the physical science (August 2021), the impacts and adaptation (this report) and the opportunities to mitigate climate change (later in 2022).

The report is put together 270 main authors and 675 contributing authors, citing over 34,000 references. The authors note, the extent and magnitude of climate change impacts are larger than estimated in previous assessments.

While this current report highlights the alarming impacts of the unfolding climate crisis, it also aims to provide society with paths to reduce risk through comprehensive adaptation.

The Co-Chair of this assessment Hans-Otto Pörtner warned, “The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future,”.

Report Headlines

Since the last report in 2014, the impacts of climate change and science’s ability to determine them, have advanced considerably. The tone of this report – as compared to past reports – reflects both an increasing certainty and urgency, as the frequency and intensity of climate extremes become more pervasive.   

“Human-induced climate change, including more frequent and intense extreme events, has caused widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people,” the report states. “The rise in weather and climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt.”

According to the report, around 3 and a half billion people worldwide live in situations that are highly vulnerable to climate change. One of the biggest threats is displacement. The report notes that climate extremes are increasingly driving displacement in all regions and contributing to humanitarian crises where climate hazards interact with populations are high vulnerable.

A high-profile example occurred in autumn 2020 when hurricane Eta and Iota – both enhanced by warming Caribbean waters – made landfall as category 4 storms two weeks and 15 miles apart in Central America. The storms destroyed much of the agriculture industry workers depended on for employment and displaced 600,000 people, many of whom tried to migrate to other countries, especially the US.

In addition, the report says a large proportion of species are vulnerable to climate change. Increasing heat and extreme weather are driving plants and animals towards the poles, to higher altitudes, or to the deeper ocean waters. Approximately half of the species assessed globally have shifted poleward or to higher elevations.

As a result, the timing of key biological events such as breeding or flowering is being altered. In many cases, this reduces the ability of nature to provide the essential services that we depend on to survive. In some cases, species are reaching limits in their ability to adapt to climate change, and those that cannot adjust or move fast enough are at risk of extinction.

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the Earth has warmed about 2 degrees Fahrenheit due to heat-trapping greenhouse gases building up in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. The report expresses high confidence that if global warming reaches 2.7°F (which will likely happen in the 2030s), it will cause unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards, posing multiple risks to ecosystems and humans.

However, the scientists stress that if society is able to take near-term action to limit global warming to below 2.7°F, it would substantially reduce projected losses and damages. With that said, some impacts – like the melting of glaciers and sea-level rise – are already unavoidable due to momentum in the climate system, but the pace and extent can still be lessened.

You may be wondering why is 2.7°F of warming significant? In degrees Celsius, this is 1.5 – which, if exceeded, is the amount of warming the scientific consensus agrees would accelerate climate impacts. Thus, it is the goal of the Paris Agreement to limit warming below 1.5°C (2.7°F).

In the longer term, beyond 2040, the report notes that climate change will lead to numerous risks to nature and humans that are multiple times higher than currently observed. In other words, risks will multiply as the Earth continues to warm, but the magnitude of those risks will depend on the actions taken. Every ‘increment of warming’ which society avoids matters, minimizing the potential damage and losses.

However, with continued warming, multiple climate extremes will increasingly occur simultaneously. The report acknowledges that climate change does not exist in a vacuum and is only one piece of the risk puzzle. Climate change enhances extremes and exposes existing vulnerabilities in both human and ecological systems. It acts in concert with other trends such as overconsumption, unsustainable development, biodiversity loss and inequality – leading to compounding and cascading risks.

An example of this would be a climate-spiked hurricane, followed by a climate-enhanced heatwave on a population whose infrastructure was already degraded by previous storms and long-standing socioeconomic issues.

While the assessment notes that societies have made progress in climate adaptation, it is unevenly distributed across the world. Also, there are progressively widening gaps in the extent which humans have adapted so far and how much will be needed as climate impacts accelerate.

As is typical of human nature, many initiatives prioritize immediate/near-term climate concerns, but that reduces the opportunity for big-picture, transformational adaptation. And with increasing global warming, the report warns that human and natural systems will reach adaptation limits.

To address this, the report outlines a stricture they call Climate Resilient Development in which they encourage governments, civil society and the private sector make smart, long-term development choices that prioritize cooperation, risk reduction and equity and justice.

Threats to Florida’s Fragile Ecosystems

Florida’s unique ecosystems like its mangrove forests, coral reefs and the Everglades offer a natural beauty and diversity of life unmatched in most parts of the World. But it is all in decline due to warming coastal waters, unsustainable development and nutrient pollution.

The report says that near-term warming and increased frequency, severity and duration of extreme events will place many coastal and marine ecosystems at high or very high risks of biodiversity loss such as seagrass ecosystems warm-water coral reefs.

Florida’s ecosystems are a big part of Florida’s economic engine. NOAA estimates that Florida’s coral reef system is valued at $8.5 billion. However, in the Florida Keys, coral has experienced shocking declines, with only 2% of coral cover left, due to warm water coral bleaching, nutrient pollution and disease.

Increasingly, since the last assessment report, events like warm-water coral bleaching and mortality can attributed to human-induced climate change. The report says that increased heatwaves are exceeding the tolerance thresholds, driving mass mortalities in species such as corals. The report expresses high confidence that in the future, projected climate change, combined with other hazards, will cause loss and degradation of much of the world’s coral reefs and low-lying coastal wetlands.

In the below image from the assessment, coral reefs stand out as the most vulnerable of all ecosystems. The earth has already warmed almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit, putting coral in the purple – very high risk – zone. It’s likely that just one more degree Fahrenheit of global warming will push most tropical corals to the brink of extinction. This could happen by mid-century or before, especially if immediate action is not taken to limit warming.

8 On Your Side spoke to Tampa Bay Area Marine Scientist Dr Ellen Prager who said of the report, “It’s an urgent message saying we can try to adapt, but the truth is we also have also focus on reducing emissions to save coral reefs and to save all these other critical habitats.”

The report also notes that adverse impacts from tropical cyclones, including losses and damages, have increased due to sea-level rise and the increase in heavy precipitation. Because Florida is ground zero for hurricanes, this has a direct impact on our state

Hurricanes have also gotten stronger. Research from NOAA climate scientist Dr. James Kossin shows that in the Atlantic Ocean, there’s about twice the chance that a hurricane will be at major hurricane intensity (Category 3, 4 or 5), rather than a weaker Category 1 or 2, compared to the chances four decades ago. 

This matters because damage potential increases exponentially as hurricanes become more intense. According to NOAA, about 85% of all damages occur in hurricanes of category 3 and up.

And last, but certainly not least, the report warns about accelerating sea-level rise stating, “Continued and accelerating sea-level rise will encroach on coastal settlements and infrastructure and commit low-lying coastal ecosystems to submergence and loss.”

Just last week, NASA and NOAA release a comprehensive report on sea-level rise. For the Tampa Bay Area, one startling statistic stood out, with the report mentioning St Petersburg by name. From now through 2060 Tampa Bay may experience almost 2 feet of sea-level rise, threatening not only coastal ecosystems but valuable real estate and infrastructure.

It’s Not Too Late, But Urgent Action Is Needed

The report makes clear that the impacts of climate change are accelerating and some of the consequences are already irreversible, but humankind can go a long way in stemming global warming by both adapting to its impacts and reducing further warming. The assessment states, “Worldwide action to achieve a climate-resilient, sustainable world is more urgent than previously thought.”   

The report emphasizes a concept they call Climate Resilient Development. It is a thoughtful approach to planning and building such that governments minimize climate risks and maintain the health of ecosystems and the services they provide to humanity. It combines strategies to adapt to climate change with actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

To accomplish climate-resilient development, international cooperation between governments, civil society and the private sector are necessary to prioritize risk reduction, equity and justice, and adequate finance. The authors stress that actions to implement this concept must start now because if global temperatures rise 2 degrees Fahrenheit, then climate-resilient development will become impossible in some regions of the world.

One fundamental step is restoring and preserving nature. “Healthy ecosystems are more resilient to climate change and provide life-critical services such as food and clean water”, said report Co-Chair Hans-Otto Pörtner. 

Globally, less than 15% of the land, 21% of the freshwater and 8% of the ocean are protected areas. Hans-Otto Pörtner says that we must increase that number to ensure health for ecosystems and humanity.

“By restoring degraded ecosystems and effectively and equitably conserving 30% to 50% of Earth’s land, freshwater and ocean habitats, society can benefit from nature’s capacity to absorb and store carbon, and we can accelerate progress towards sustainable development.”