The UN’s Latest Climate Change Report Is Clear: We Must Act Fast to Avoid Catastrophic Impacts

A woman and boy paddle away from their home in Bangladesh after a river flooded their town. Photo: Moniruzzaman Sazal / Climate Visuals Countdown

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations’ chief climate science body, confirms that we are not on track to secure a climate-resilient, livable future. It provides the most in-depth assessment yet of the impacts of climate change, our vulnerabilities to it, and our efforts to adapt thus far. Keep reading for our climate experts’ key takeaways on some of the report’s most significant — and sobering — findings in several critical areas: climate finance, oceans, food, equity, urban areas, and governance.

Main Findings from the IPCC’s New Climate Report

This report, the second major installment in the IPCC’s current assessment cycle, paints a somber picture of the widespread and severe climate impacts that our planet — and all of the humans, animals, and other species who live here — are already experiencing. Not only does the report confirm that climate change has had an adverse impact on billions of people around the world — and none more so than marginalized communities — but some species and ecosystems have suffered irreversible losses, especially those people and natural systems affected by melting glaciers and rising sea levels.

The report further finds that the world has not acted at anywhere near the pace and scale needed to meaningfully adapt to current and future impacts of climate change. While the report finds that adaptation efforts can be extremely effective in minimizing climate-fueled impacts and damages, they are not being implemented quickly or widely enough. The IPCC also outlines options for adaptation, underlining ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) in particular as a highly impactful strategy that can help people and nature cope with the impacts of climate change while also reducing current and future risk. (EbA is a set of strategies that use natural ecosystems, such as restoring mangroves to protect coastal areas from storm surge, to both benefit nature and protect people.)

A girl and boy stand on a flooded riverbank in Bangladesh. Photo: Moniruzzaman Sazal / Climate Visuals Countdown

This report also contains regional chapters for the first time, and the IPCC produced accompanying regional fact sheets to give people even more tools to understand how the climate is affecting their corner of the world. The science in this report has implications for all of the natural world, from individual species to entire ecosystems. Our climate experts have unpacked several of the key findings for climate finance, oceans, food, equity, urban areas, and governance and lay out what we can — and must — do in light of their implications.

The Adaptation Finance Gap

The findings: The discrepancy between available climate finance and projected climate costs is growing. The quantity and type of finance currently available to adapt at speed and scale to climate impacts is far lower than what is needed to avert catastrophic damages, with the most vulnerable populations at greatest risk.

The implications: While it’s clear there are many actions we can take to adapt to and minimize vulnerability to climate impacts, far more can and must be done. Both the public and private sectors have critical roles to play, though when it comes to adaptation, public investment is particularly critical as the near-term opportunities for return on private sector investment in adaptation projects are harder to capture and thus often don’t materialize. It is, for instance, far easier to seize opportunities for private investment in new solar power, which will generate steady consumer demand (and therefore returns) than, for example, investment in restoration of a mangrove forest that would provide an extremely important buffer to storm surges but doesn’t have paying customers to produce returns.

Mangroves from the nursery at the University of the West Indies being planted near Kingston, Jamaica. Photo: UNEP

The response: We need to unlock and scale up public sector investment in areas that are in critical need of adaptation, using both direct public funding and national and international development banks. We can also develop new ways of driving increased private sector investment.

For more information, see the report’s Chapter 17: Decision-making options for managing risk

Protecting the Ocean

The findings: Climate change has had severe and lasting impacts on the ocean, many of which will persist for decades. Impacts include widespread and increasingly irreversible destruction of marine ecosystems. The ocean also faces more intense tropical cyclones, more rapid sea level rise, and ocean acidification. Impacts to the ocean are expected to worsen. For instance, at 1.5°C of warming above preindustrial levels, 70-90% of tropical coral reefs are expected to disappear; at 2°C of warming, over 99% of coral reefs could be gone.

The implications: Both coastal communities and marine ecosystems will face irreversible impacts from climate change, including loss of coastal habitats, ecosystems, and infrastructure. Warming and ocean acidification have already negatively affected water, energy, food, and nutrition security. Long-term risks from sea level rise for coastal ecosystems, people, and infrastructure are expected to increase substantially.


A teenage boy stands on a seawall that protects his family home from the rising seas in Jenrock village in the Majuro Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Photo: Vlad Sokhin/ UNICEF

The response: Governments must act quickly to implement policies that limit warming to 1.5°C in order to limit the severity of climate impacts on the ocean and on the people and communities that depend on it. In addition to cutting emissions, governments must act now to prepare for sea level rise, ocean acidification, and other impacts that will continue for decades. Such measures include ensuring that future coastal development and infrastructure planning account for increasing sea levels and more frequent weather events.

For more information, see the report’s Chapter 3: Ocean and coastal ecosystems and their services

Resilient Food Systems

The findings: Heat waves, droughts, floods, and ocean acidification threaten the food security and nutrition of millions of people, particularly in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, and small islands. In the future, intensifying climate change impacts will put even more pressure on food production systems, further undermining food security.

Efforts required for food systems to adapt to climate change have a higher chance of success if implemented within the next 10 years. Peril to global food and agriculture systems will sharply increase as temperatures rise, with clear adaptation limits. At 2°C of warming, for instance, multiple staple crops in tropical regions will no longer be able to adapt as effectively as they do now. Meanwhile, at 2°C of warming, more people in Africa, Asia, Central America, and small islands are likely to experience malnutrition, and after 2050, if emissions continue unchecked, food availability will decline due to potential widespread crop failure and decreased fisheries and livestock.

The implications: Without meaningful adaptation efforts in the agricultural sector, the impacts of climate change on food systems will jeopardize the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2: Zero Hunger and will lead to cascading impacts on human health, nutrition, livelihoods, and economies.

A farmer tends to his cows during a moment of heat stress in India. Photo: Prashanth Vishwanathan / Ashden

The response: A range of food system adaptation and resilience options is available, and many existing strategies, such as conservation agriculture and agroforestry, would deliver significant benefits for nature. Policymakers should invest in making food systems more resilient by adopting stress-tolerant crops and livestock; diversifying farms; using nature’s own solutions for pest control, pollination, and storing carbon; and deploying other strategies. Such efforts can help bolster the resilience of our food security, nutrition, livelihoods, well-being, and biodiversity.

For more information, see the report’s Chapter 5: Food, fibre, and other ecosystem products

Addressing and Reversing Inequalities in Vulnerable Communities

The findings: Vulnerable groups — women, youths, ethnic minorities, Indigenous peoples, refugees — are experiencing, and will continue to experience, disproportionate exposure and impacts from climate change. People who are already marginalized and frequently less able to access resources and support are at greater risk from climate change. Vulnerability resulting from inequality and poverty presents significant adaptation limits for Indigenous peoples in particular, as their livelihoods and cultures are often inextricably tied with the land and ecosystems where they live.

The implications: Indigenous people and other vulnerable groups will face more hurdles when coping with future climate shocks. What’s more, the impacts to these communities at just 1.1°C above preindustrial levels are projected to worsen as the planet continues to warm. Marginalized groups are most at risk, including coastal communities in developing economies whose livelihoods are threatened by rising seas.

An indigenous man smiles in the Apiwtxa village, in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. Photo: Alécio Cézar/ UNICEF

The response: It’s imperative that national policymakers and global institutions devote resources to vulnerable groups to cope with climate change, including a focus on preventing future disproportionate impacts on Indigenous peoples and other marginalized communities. This could start with the $100 billion per year in climate finance that rich nations have long promised but not yet delivered to developing economies. It is also essential for climate risk management processes and outcomes to draw on Indigenous knowledge and local knowledge systems. The world’s leaders need to collaborate with vulnerable groups to address existing impacts and prevent future climate risks that are unique to their needs and circumstances.

For more information, see the report’s Chapter 8: Poverty, livelihoods and sustainable development

Building Climate-resilient Cities

The findings: Urban areas, including cities and informal settlements, are especially vulnerable to climate change. Billions of people in urban areas are exposed to climate risks, and adverse impacts are expected to increase in the future, as the global urban population is expected to grow by 2.5 billion by 2050. What’s more, by 2050 it is expected that over a billion people in low-lying urban areas will be at risk from coastal climate hazards.

While urban areas are experiencing negative effects of climate change, they also represent a unique opportunity for adaptation to a changing climate. Implementing policies that strengthen ecosystem-based adaptation approaches, resilient infrastructure, and equitable development can help achieve climate-resilient cities.

The implications: Urban areas represent both a huge risk and a major opportunity where climate change is concerned. If current urban development patterns persist (such as the build-out of low-lying roads in flood prone coastal areas and other climate-vulnerable infrastructure), more people will be exposed to climate risks as urban populations grow. What’s more, the people who will be most at risk are those who are already economically and socially marginalized, such as people living in informal settlements.

Alternatively, climate-resilient urban development offers multiple benefits. For instance, promoting clean energy, investing in urban transit systems, and increasing access to health care can produce positive outcomes for both the climate and human health, while enhancing access to clean energy and water can help reduce poverty and increase people’s resilience to climate impacts. These steps can protect billions of people — not to mention trillions of dollars’ worth of critical infrastructure — from climate change impacts. In addition, climate-resilient development in urban areas benefits human health, equity, and well-being, while also protecting the natural systems that border and interact with human settlements.

The skyline of San Francisco glows red due to wildfires burning in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Photo: Patrick Perkins / Climate Visuals Countdown

The response: It is critical for policymakers and urban planners to rapidly adopt and implement climate-resilient development plans. While a majority of current investment is directed at flood walls and other hard engineering projects, investment should instead focus on using nature to bolster adaptation, such as urban agriculture and river restoration.

It is important to give special attention to coastal cities in developing economies. They have among the highest exposure to climate change risks because their climate vulnerability is compounded by economic and social marginalization, even while they have the fewest resources to adapt to these risks. Innovative sources of public and private finance must be made available for urban governments and their partners in developing economies to allow them to implement climate-resilient development, especially in large coastal cities. 

For more information, see the report’s Chapter 6: Cities, settlements and key infrastructure and Chapter 18: Climate resilient development pathways

Inclusive Climate Governance

The findings: Governance challenges can hinder sustainable development and limit adaptation potential. In addition, all over the world, inclusive governance is critical for implementing effective climate risk management, adaptation, and climate-resilient development.

The implications: Current governance and diplomacy efforts are not enough to reduce existing climate change impacts and avoid future climate risks. Adaptation efforts under current governance structures may lead to so-called maladaptation (adaptation efforts that actually worsen the problem), causing additional harm to the environment and human society. To avoid maladaptation and ensure effective adaptation at scale, a wide variety of societal actors and perspectives must be included in the diverse governance arenas where development decisions are made.

World leaders attend the COP26 World Leader Summit—which aimed to enhance commitments towards mitigating climate change. Photo: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street

The response: To accelerate and strengthen adaptation efforts, governments must decrease governance barriers by instituting inclusive frameworks, policies, and plans. These processes need to set adaptation goals, define responsibilities and commitments, coordinate among actors and governance levels, and build adaptive capacity. Governments must also mobilize financial and technical resources and prioritize equity and justice in adaptation planning and implementation. Governments at all levels must work in partnership with civil society, the youth movement, Indigenous peoples, local communities, ethnic minorities, educational institutions, media, investors, and businesses. Engagement with all stakeholders is required to create inclusive governance frameworks and develop effective adaptation actions.

For more information, see the report’s Chapter 17: Decision-making options for managing risk

So what now?

This IPCC report has enormous relevance to everyone from national governments to local leaders, from the world’s wealthiest countries to the poorest, and from the private sector to nonprofits and academic institutions. And while this report focuses heavily on the impacts of climate change, it also highlights solutions to tackle the immense challenges we face. The next IPCC report, which will focus on climate change mitigation, is expected to be released in early April, and it will place an even greater emphasis on climate change solutions.

The choices leaders make over the next 10 years will determine the planet’s future. And while the science is unequivocal that we have no time to waste, the good news is that we know what we need to do. There are solutions to the climate crisis, and this latest report from the IPCC confirms that we need to rapidly scale up adaptation and make deep emissions cuts to keep the rise in global temperature in check. We face a rapidly closing window to secure a livable future — and we must act now.

For more information about the IPCC, see our blog posts below previewing the adaptation and mitigation reports and our piece about the August 2021 science report.