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UN Climate Report Sounds Alarm Bells for Humanity, Global Security

“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere, and biosphere have occurred.”

The sixth assessment report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes (IPCC) pulls no punches—it paints a grim picture of the state of the climate and the future of the planet unless drastic action is taken. The report warns that limiting global warming to the Paris Climate Agreement goal—1.5 degrees Celsius—will be beyond reach in the next two decades without immediate and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, CNBC reported. This is a shift from the previous IPCC report (released in 2014) that predicted the planet would hit the 1.5 degree milestone by 2040. If the planet reaches 2 degrees Celsius of global warming, heat extremes could reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and human health.

The IPCC report, AR6 Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, shared five key points, according to BBC analysis:

  • Global surface temperature was 1.09 degrees Celsius higher in 2011-2020 than between 1850 and 1900.
  • The past five years have been the hottest on record since 1850.
  • The recent rate of sea level rise has nearly tripled compared with 1901-1971, and seas are likely to continue to rise in the near future, no matter what human intervention is applied. Under current scenarios, the report found, sea levels could go up two meters by the end of this century and up to five meters by 2150, especially under a high greenhouse gas emissions scenario. Even if warming is kept within the 1.5-degree threshold, long-term projections of sea level rise still reach two to three meters.
  • Human influence is “very likely” (90 percent) the main driver of the global retreat of glaciers and the decrease in Arctic sea ice since the 1990s.
  • It is “virtually certain” that hot extremes—like heatwaves—have become more intense and frequent since the 1950s, while cold events have been less frequent and less severe.

UN Secretary General António Guterres called the report “a code red for humanity,” adding that “the alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk.”

The report was released in the midst of numerous climate and severe weather-related disasters, including wildfires in Greece, Turkey, and the West Coast of North America; a second heat wave encroaching on the Pacific Northwest; major flooding in China, India, and now North Korea; and the loss of billions of tons of ice in the Russian Arctic.

Climate change-induced flooding due to extreme rainfall is likely to increase as well. Currently, a day of intense rainfall was expected 1.3 times every 10 years. If warming increased a half-degree to 1.5C, the likelihood increases to 1.5 times; if warming reaches 2C, extreme rainfall is likely to occur 1.7 times every decade. Heavy rainfall will also increase in intensity. Currently, at 1C warmer than 1850-1900 levels, heavy rainfall is 6.7 percent wetter than ever. Under 1.5C warming, intensity will increase to 10.5 percent.

Cities and urban areas are in trouble—because cities absorb solar energy during the day and release it at night, they experience higher temperatures than surrounding rural areas. According to Paola Andrea Arias Gómez, one of the report’s authors who spoke at an IPCC press conference, “We now understand that globally, extreme heat waves occur five times as often as before, and they can occur 14 times as often if warming reaches 2 degrees of global warming.”

In addition, farmland is endangered by major droughts and heatwaves, according to WIRED. Gómez added that “We understand now that, globally, droughts that occurred once every 10 years now occur 70 percent more frequently, and such droughts will arise between twice and three times as often if we reach global warming of two degrees.”

Climate change is also known as a multiplier of security threats, because it amplifies global stressors, including poverty, political instability, and social tensions, among others. According to James Morris, CPP, head of security services for the EMEA region at Aon Business Services, “The security implications of climate change are focused on the national implications such as reduced ice pack in the Arctic opening shipping lanes and access to resources, potential water shortage creating a risk of interstate conflict, and the potential for resource nationalism around elements essential for green technology such as access to cobalt, lithium natural graphite, and manganese for batteries.

“However, the implications of business will be noteworthy,” he tells Security Management.

“As things stand, it’s highly likely that we will reach 1.5 degrees of warming with the next 20 years, with the best-case scenario under current trajectories seeing warming of 2-3 degrees. A world that is 2 degrees warmer will see much more extreme weather, and this will happen much more often, too.” Under such a rise in temperatures, sea level rise, extreme weather, and drought could drive deteriorations in health and wellbeing; mass migration—which, as seen in Europe in the past decade, can trigger social tensions; political instability; weak governance; and corruption.  

“This is why the Syrian Civil War is cited by some as the first ‘climate war,’ as there are some who see the long-term effects of climate change in its genesis: a historic agricultural region suffering long droughts that destroyed food production and killed livestock, leading to a mass migration into major cities, and a drain on already stretched welfare programs, which led to protests and ultimately violence,” Morris says. “Now this is a simplistic way to look at the Syrian situation, and there were several other factors at play, but the key elements are extreme weather affecting food and job security, rising tension among communities as a result of migration, weak governments, poverty, and social ills, and these are all things we will see much more of in the future.

“However, these extreme weather events could disrupt major business operations, supply, and distribution chains.

“We also have to consider the impacts of activists and shareholders on business, too,” he continues. “Many cities have seen protests led by climate groups and a number of businesses have been targeted by groups such as Extinction Rebellion, and we can expect these to worsen, as well as the threat of sabotage as action becomes more extreme. Similarly, the risk of legal action against companies seen to be profiting from climate inaction is also elevated. Some analysts have speculated that this latest IPCC report, which states that climate change is unequivocally human-caused, could set the mark for much more climate litigation against companies and governments that aren’t seen to be acting appropriately.”