UN panel’s grim climate change report: ‘Parts of the planet will become uninhabitable’

  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report is a “dire warning about the consequences of inaction” on climate change.
  • It’s not just ecosystems and weather being affected by warming: People are suffering and dying, experts say.
  • In North America, human life, safety and livelihood will be at risk from sea-level rise, severe storms and hurricanes, especially in coastal areas.

Life in some locations on the planet is rapidly reaching the point where it will be too hot for the species that live there to survive, international climate experts said in a report Monday.

“With climate change, some parts of the planet will become uninhabitable,” said German scientist Hans-Otto Pörtner, the co-chair of Working Group II for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which produced the report released in Berlin, Germany.

The report assesses scientific literature documenting the devastating effects of human-caused climate change on society and ecosystems worldwide. 

The group studied the vulnerability of people and ecosystems to the changing climate and how adaptation could help reduce the risks, said Pörtner and co-chair Deborah Roberts of South Africa. 

“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, beyond natural climate variability,” the report stated. 

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Urgent action is needed to curb rising temperatures and limit the worsening impacts that climate change is already having on physical and mental health and well-being, the panel concluded. Some of the anticipated future impacts won’t be prevented, but the authors emphasized swift and significant actions could help stave off the worst ones. 

Fran Tribe and her dog Dave sit outside home destroyed by Hurricane Ida in Houma, LA. Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.

Climate group founded in 1988

The IPCC was established by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization in 1988 to provide scientific assessments on climate change and its implications and risks.

The assessments, released every six to seven years, are meant to provide governments around the world with information to develop climate policies. 

The IPCC is in the midst of its sixth assessment. 

Monday’s report, prepared by 270 top scientists from 67 countries, builds on a report released last summer by the IPCC’s Working Group I, which made headlines for its bleak warning of a “code red for humanity.”

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A ‘dire warning’ on inaction 

Hoesung Lee, chair of the IPCC, said Monday’s report is a “dire warning about the consequences of inaction. It shows that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our well-being and a healthy planet.”

Increased heat waves, droughts and floods are already exceeding plants’ and animals’ tolerance thresholds, driving mass mortalities in species such as trees and corals, according to the report.

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And it’s not just ecosystems and weather being affected by the warming. 

Human impacts are being documented around the globe, said Kristie Ebi, a University of Washington professor in the department of global health and a lead author of a chapter on health, well-being and communities. 

People dying from climate change

People are now suffering and dying from climate change, Ebi said. And, rising temperatures are adversely affecting pregnancy outcomes. 

Sherilee Harper, a lead author on the North American chapter and an associate professor at the University of Alberta’s public health school, said she was personally struck by the impact climate change already is having on the “physical and mental health of many Americans.”

The report highlights a “pressing need to ramp up adaptation,” said Adelle Thomas, a senior Caribbean research associate at Climate Analytics and one of the authors of the report’s summary for policymakers and a chapter on key risks.

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Quick action needed

Several authors speaking on a call on Sunday weren’t without hope and the report presents options for taking quick action to avert the worst consequences.

There are multiple pathways communities, countries and the world can pursue to achieve climate resilient development, but the need to act now is “urgent,” said Edward Carr, director of Clark University’s department of international development, community and the environment and a lead author of a chapter on climate resilient development.

“The window for implementing system transitions is narrowing,” Carr said. “We’ve already eliminated some possible pathways because of our past choices.”

Existing development patterns, combined with climate change, are leading the world away from sustainable development, Carr said. 

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Some of the negative impacts affecting well-being already are accelerating and can’t be prevented, the authors said.

Americans at risk

Even if global warming is limited to the 1.5 degrees C goal, human life, safety and livelihoods across North America will be placed at risk from sea-level rise, severe storms and hurricanes, especially in coastal areas, the report states. 

The increasingly intense storms, “combined with sea-level rise will result in losses and damages, despite our best efforts to adapt,” Thomas said. “And unfortunately, these negative impacts of climate change have disproportionate effects on those that are least able to respond, the poorest and most vulnerable communities.”

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Without limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C, the risks to North Americans are expected to intensify rapidly, Harper said. It would result in “irreversible changes to ecosystems, mounting damages to infrastructure and housing, and really stress economic sectors and disrupt livelihoods, mental health, physical health and safety.”

Delays in climate action wrought by misinformation about climate change science have made the need to act even more urgent, Harper said. “That’s led to increasing uncertainty and slowed the recognition of the risks.” 

In remarks earlier in February, Pörtner concluded the scientific evidence is unequivocal: “Climate change is a threat to human well-being 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.”


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