Climate danger is spreading; we need an accelerated holistic response
Climate danger is spreading, compounding, and accelerating; impacts are hitting harder, and more communities are experiencing deep vulnerability; we need an all-of-society response, at full speed.
Last year, a landmark study found that wildfires in the American west have become four times larger and occur three times as frequently than in the year 2000. The paper was led by the University of Colorado at Boulder, written by Virginia Iglesias, Jennifer K. Balch, and William R. Travis, and published in the journal Science Advances.
The authors note that “Fire is an integral part of numerous terrestrial ecosystems”, and explain in their abstract:
Recent fires have fueled concerns that regional and global warming trends are leading to more extreme burning. We found compelling evidence that average fire events in regions of the United States are up to four times the size, triple the frequency, and more widespread in the 2000s than in the previous two decades. Moreover, the most extreme fires are also larger, more common, and more likely to co-occur with other extreme fires. This documented shift in burning patterns across most of the country aligns with the palpable change in fire dynamics noted by the media, public, and fire-fighting officials.
Researchers found that large fires were more likely to occur around the same time as other large fires. This means resources will be strained far more than if large fires were not simultaneous, and there is heightened risk of large fires merging, into catastrophic regional fire systems, as witnessed in California and Australia in 2020 and 2021. 2021 also saw fires in Siberia bigger than all other fires combined.
Fire season itself is expanding and being dislocated. The most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s recorded history raged over the 2021-2022 New Year’s holiday and into the early days of 2022. Large winter wildfires in cold, mountainous regions are possible only because climate conditions are significantly altered.
Illegal deforestation is destroying vital ecosystems in the Amazon rainforest and threatening the long-term viability of a forest so vast, it is one of the anchors of Earth’s climate system. The Washington Post reports:
“The deforestation has been closely accompanied by the threat of violence. In 2017, armed illegal miners in broad daylight burned down the offices in Humaitá of Ibama, the federal environmental law enforcement agency. Inspectors investigating illegal sites now equip themselves for combat: long rifles, camouflaged fatigues, bulletproof vests. Rural landowners have been targeted.”
Nature loss makes it even harder to counter global heating. Carbon is sequestered by living organisms. Life is what draws down carbon. Human activity has caused the loss of 83% of wild mammals and half of plants. Scientists have found that global heating contributes to nature loss and increases the release of stored carbon, creating a dangerous feedback loop.
Temperatures over the eastern Antarctic Ice Sheet have reached 70°F above normal in recent years. The extreme temperature deviation is a sign of underlying climate destabilization, and its impacts can accelerate loss of both glacial and sea ice, accelerating that destabilization.
Meanwhile, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is effectively running out of water. Desertification and artificial extraction of water resources are combining to deplete reserves and create grave ongoing risks to health and resilience of people, communities, and ecosystems.
Food insecurity has spread to record levels since the COVID-19 pandemic began—in part because global production was already threatened by background climate disruption. This situation has been made far worse by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and by the record number of countries facing serious debt distress.
The 2023 Global Report on Food Crises finds a sharp increase in the number of people facing high levels of acute food insecurity, to more than 250 million, and cites “interconnected, mutually reinforcing drivers” for the surge in hunger. The acceleration effect of these “interconnected, mutually reinforcing drivers” is a key feature of this period of pervasive nature loss and climate disruption.
Shocks will be worse, because they are interacting and compounding. More people will be affected. Vulnerability will become more entrenched in more places. The collective need to invest wisely to prevent harm, build up crisis response capabilities, and mainstream sustainable solutions is only becoming greater as these compounding risks play out.
The four major reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 6th Assessment—Working Groups 1, 2, and 3, and the Synthesis Report—make clear: The window for achieving successful climate resilient development is closing; countering vulnerability is a shared imperative; the shift to climate-safe practices must move forward at unprecedented speed, everywhere.
What all of this tells us is that integrated and holistic approaches are urgently needed—to trace connections between human and natural systems, to identify areas of non-financial value that affect everyday health and wellbeing, to support climate-sensitive trade and security cooperation, and to stop the spread of severe food insecurity and water scarcity.
Intergovernmental processes need to work across Conventions. Instead of deferring to the treaty of original jurisdiction—and leaving urgent areas of overlap unattended—we need the community of nations to keep updating and upgrading the overall cooperative response to interacting global crises. When we say “We need all hands on deck”, we need to back up that rallying cry with creative, far-reaching, and multidimensional cooperative arrangements, as envisioned under Article 6.8 of the Paris Agreement.
People everywhere, including in the most vulnerable and marginal communities, have a role to play in bringing all of us into pathways to sustainable human development.
We need international cooperation to be more ambitious, more holistic, and also more inclusive than ever.
Every area of value is implicated in this challenge; all the money in the world will be increasingly at risk, if we fail to seize this moment.
Explore integrated & holistic approaches
Good Food Finance Network – shifting food systems locally and globally through climate-informed, resilience-building, sustainable and inclusive finance
Earth Diplomacy Leadership Initiative – preparing diplomats, observers, media, and other participants for climate negotiations and related processes