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Why We Need to Start Talking About Climate Impacts on Health and Livability (During COP27 and Beyond)

Photo: Kiara Worth / UN - COP27 Opening Plenary (6 November 2022)

[This text has been written by Ivana Cvijanovic, Assistant Research Professor of ISGlobal's Climate and Health Program, and Laura Chica, Research Technician of ISGlobal's Climate and Health Program.]


We are in the midst of a climate crisis and our current ‘action’ target is set to wipe out more than a third of all animal and plant species. But what about us humans? What’s in store for us? 

Bungee jumping without a cord

The scientific community has defined the ‘safe’ limit of global temperature rise as 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels. Multiple studies have demonstrated that it would be much better to stay under 1.5ºC than go for 2ºC (coral reefs preserved, billions of people not exposed to water scarcity or killer heatwaves amongst other benefits). 194 parties (193 countries plus the EU) ratified the Paris Climate Agreement acknowledging that this is indeed a great idea. But like many great ideas, it’s not always easy to turn them into reality. Current policies are set to lead us to a 2.7ºC warming by the end of the century (November 2022 update). Such temperature rise will bring us to a reality inadequate to maintain the world's population and life as we know it. This is equivalent to finding ourselves jumping off the Zhangjiajie Glass Bridge and realizing that we had forgotten to attach any type of plummet-limiting device. It is unlikely that any place on Earth will be spared from the consequences

Will there be humans in the tropics any more?

How will the 2.7ºC warming catastrophe unfold? Well, one important reason why we were told not to risk pushing beyond the 1.5ºC warming is the fact that the parts of the tropics are projected to become too hot to live in as this threshold is crossed. This is obviously an inconvenience for current residents who wish to remain alive but also a logistical issue for the rest of the world, as it grapples with finding new places for these people to live. 

If you live outside the tropics, your region will not necessarily be deemed unlivable, but that does not mean that you will not have a chance to get killed by a major heatwave, flood or hurricane or just catch an infectious disease as the global burden of diseases increases substantially. This is in addition to threats to food and water security. You will also have a range of opportunities to engage in a civil conflict as it is still not clear where all those people that will no longer be able to live in the tropics (and some other areas of the world) are supposed to go.

A desert party: COP27

Luckily, as this is being written, representatives of nations, companies, and interested organizations are in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, participating in the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP27). Against the backdrop of this major desert resort, they are all set to again promise to do something about climate change. In previous years, promises have not quite set us on the path to avoiding climate disaster. So it’s with relief, we note that this time there are more than 600 representatives from the fossil fuel industry in attendance. Having spent a good deal of effort helping "advance" the science of climate change in the most "transparent" ways possible, it’s great to see them take an interest in energy systems that do not depend on burning stuff we’ve dug out of the ground. We do not understand why some activist groups are asking for them to be kicked out nor why has no one glued themselves to Tutankhamun yet?

Amongst all this policy maneuvering, a couple of voices are being heard stepping forward. Phrases like ‘climate justice’ and ‘climate disaster funds’ are being uttered as a growing recognition of the fact that the burden of climate change is on the world’s poorest countries. Should the most polluting countries (which seemingly also happen to be very rich) or the most polluting industries be required to recompense those most acutely affected given the current level of scientific evidence suggesting that this is their fault? 

Financing adaptation or relocation?

For those COP27 delegates that care about our common future, a key theme is how to handle the ecological transition and financing of adaptation in the most affected countries. In a fair system, the financing would ideally be provided by those countries which benefited most from their polluting practices. Pakistan and Bangladesh are just two of the countries that have suffered major climate catastrophes in 2022 and need financial help to recover. But current financing is insufficient and the UN estimate of 340 billion dollars per year needed to help the worst affected countries adapt to climate change is nowhere within reach. 

A really big elephant in the room is not how to finance climate adaptation but rather the uncertainty of exactly what the worst affected countries are expected to prepare for and adapt to. If the world is headed for a 2.7 ºC global temperature rise, it is hard to understand what adaptation efforts would look like. Will every citizen of a country experiencing unlivable heat be given access to an air-conditioned living space with uninterrupted energy, food and water supply? Even if infrastructurally possible, this would require much greater funding than envisioned in any discussions thus far. 

Clearly, adaptation has to come hand in hand with global climate action on decreasing CO2 emissions and limiting warming to 1.5 ºC so we can avoid the risk of entire countries becoming uninhabitable. As things are headed right now, some areas of sub-Saharan Africa could reach this point as early as 2050. They will experience a combination of heat and humidity that will not allow life as we know today. If we can not prevent this from happening, then it’s not just the small islands that will need national relocation plans.

From Vanuatu to The Hague

Based on the current pathway of climate inaction, millions of people will be forced to move in order to survive. Since human migration is a multifaceted and complex issue, one necessary objective would be to carefully define “unlivable” climate conditions and within the context of climate justice, demand the recognition of the status of climate refugees for all the populations affected. 

Throughout the history of our society, refugees have typically been associated with wars and civil unrest. Climate change has the capacity to become a primary driver of human migrations. In 2022 alone, 27.7 million children have been impacted by flooding. Between 2000 and 2019, a conservative estimate is that there have been more than half a million of climate related deaths. With the increasing number of climate disasters expected as we advance towards the 2.7 ºC warming, these numbers will increase. What is striking is that if this amount of casualties was caused by a civil conflict, the responsible individuals would have been charged by the international court a long time ago. Last year, Vanuatu asked the International Court of Justice to issue an opinion on climate change that would clarify different legal questions related to climate change and set guidance on international, regional and domestic disputes on climate harm and climate change litigation. Given the current lack of action and likely passing of the 1.5 ºC threshold within the next few years, this may be exactly what we need, creating space for accountability before we are all gone.