If you’ve been paying attention, the findings in the newest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will not come as a surprise.
From Typhoon Haiyan to drought in California and Australia to extreme flooding in the Amazon, shifting weather patterns attributed to climate change are taking a toll on lives and livelihoods across the globe.
The Fifth Assessment Report released today in Japan further underscores the dangerous path we are on. However, I believe there’s a silver lining: a greater understanding of the most effective ways to fight back. To successfully adapt to climate change, it is essential to reduce poverty while protecting nature.
Despite the grim scenarios projected by the IPCC seven years ago in the Fourth Assessment Report — which, I should add, earned the group a Nobel Peace Prize — our global society did not take significant action to halt greenhouse gas emissions or attempt to reduce the devastating impacts of climate change. Therefore, while a drastic reduction in global emissions is still critical, it is no longer enough. We are already living in the age of adaptation.
So, what’s new in the Fifth Report? Long story short, impacts on the planet are increasing and poor people are the most vulnerable. Today, 800 million people already lack access to potable water; 850 million live in hunger. As climate change impacts food and water provision, these people will be the first to feel the consequences.
To make societies more resilient to climate change, two main actions are necessary. First, poverty must be reduced. Second, nature — which when preserved grants us with a stable climate, food, water and everything else that we need to live — has to be protected. This is why sustainable development is at the heart of what we do at CI.
Traditionally one thinks of climate change adaptation as involving high financial investment in infrastructure and technology — for instance, seawalls protecting coasts from storms and gradual sea-level rise. However, climate scientists and policymakers are talking more about ecosystem-based adaptation, which is a fancy name for a simple principle: People need nature to thrive.
Ecosystem-based adaptation starts with the premise that when used sustainably, the services provided by nature can simultaneously generate wealth and make societies more resilient to climate change. Compared to “hard-engineered” solutions, ecosystem-based adaptation is:
- Cost effective: Protecting a mangrove is cheaper than building a seawall.
- Immediately available: No need to build anything, just sustainably use what nature provides.
- Capable of providing multiple benefits: Medicine, livelihoods, culture, pollination, recreation, etc.
Ecosystem-based adaptation solutions are often the most viable options for developing countries, which contain most of the planet’s intact natural areas.
This report includes some inspiring examples of how local communities are already pursuing ecosystem-based adaptation and development solutions that promote sustainable resource use.
In my research for the IPCC report, I found successful case studies across Central and South America, including: in Brazil, conservation of mangroves and coral reefs to improve fishermen livelihoods and simultaneously prevent coastal disasters; in Bolivia, community forest management which allows for sustainable extraction of non-timber forest products; and in Ecuador, conservation agreements which ensure that the rural poor receive incentives to protect natural areas on their properties.
Part of the challenge that lies ahead will be scaling these projects up, incorporating them into public policies and spreading the word about their effectiveness to other cities and countries that could follow their example.
I take two lessons from my first experience on the IPCC. First, we have to focus a lot more on the solutions than the problems — and these solutions have to take place now.
My second lesson is about teamwork. I am one of the 830 lead authors from 85 countries who contributed to the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report. We spent three years reading, writing, correcting, revising, checking for consistency and discussing climate change data.
Can you imagine what it takes for all these scientists to reach consensus on a report? I often had the impression of being part of a gigantic orchestra, where the quiet musicians playing at the back were as important as the maestros and first violins. It is amazing how people can put aside their differences when inspired by a common goal.
I already knew that people need nature to thrive. Being involved with the IPCC reminded me that if we are to have any chance of protecting nature to save ourselves, we must work together.
Fabio Scarano is the senior vice president of CI’s Americas field division.