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Adapt to survive

Adapt to survive

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Flash flooding in Sydney comes in the same week a major report offered the ‘bleakest warning yet’ on the impacts of climate breakdown. But it’s not entirely out of our control yet.


“The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future”

Dr Debra Roberts, IPCC Working Group II co-chair

That’s Debra Roberts. She’s a South African scientist and co-chair of Working Group II at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC.

She delivered that warning on Monday. 

And as if to prove her point, the Australian state of New South Wales has this week experienced heavy rainfall that threatens several parts of western Sydney:

“A full to the brim Waragamba dam guaranteed several days of misery. A spill sending tonnes of water into already swollen river systems. It triggered evacuation warnings in Sydney south West and north west.”

9 News

Last August, a report by the IPCC showed that humanity has warmed the planet at a rate not seen for at least 2000 years.

They confirmed that the world is on course to exceed 1.5 degrees of global warming within twenty years. 

And that will keep going, unless we cut emissions much faster than at present.

On Monday, in a follow-up to that initial report, Dr Roberts set out what that future will mean for humanity. The warning, expressed here by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, was pretty clear.

“I have seen many scientific reports in my time but nothing like this. Today’s IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership. With fact upon fact, this report reveals how people and the planet are getting clobbered by climate change. Nearly half of humanity is living in the danger zone now. Many ecosystems are at the point of no return now. Unchecked carbon pollution is forcing the world’s most vulnerable on a frogmarch to destruction now. The facts are undeniable.”

António Guterres, UN Secretary-General

It’s a terrifying message. And in Sydney this week, the reality of what he meant became clear.

“Sydney on high alert, chaotic conditions, residents are being given sandbags with a major flood warning for the Hawkesbury and Nepean rivers. The suburbs are preparing for a drenching. It’s slower than expected, but it is coming.”

7 News Australia

Record-breaking rain has fallen across Australia’s east coast, killing at least eight people and damaging thousands of homes in flash floods. Up to 200 millimetres of rain was expected to fall on Sydney on Wednesday alone – that’s as much as London gets in three months.

***

Australia is no stranger to the impacts of climate change.

Two years ago, wildfires ripped across the country – in the east and west Australia. IPCC scientists confirmed this week that manmade climate change was linked to the area of Western Australia that’s been burned – doubling in size.

In March last year, the area around Sydney was battered by floods caused by weather thought to happen only once in a hundred years. 

But twelve months later, it’s happening again.

“Um I’m on my roof. The water is still rising. My dog is stuck inside my house. And it’s an emergency. And I’m on this steep roof that’s slimy.”

Lucy Vader

In the town of Lismore – where this woman pleaded for help – people had to cut holes in their roofs to escape rising water. 

Others in the suburbs of Sydney were told to leave their homes as dams meant to hold back water began to overflow.

“Well Peter the government has held a snap press conference issuing evacuation warnings for the continuing flood emergency in western Sydney. Parts of North Richmond, Emu Plains, mulgoa.”

The Sunday Morning Herald

Events like this are only going to become more frequent.  

Sydney could be 80 times more likely to experience flooding by the end of the century and its huge concrete dams are clearly already struggling.

This week’s IPCC report confirmed that risks from extreme rainfall and floods will increase not just in Australia – but across all of Australasia. 

That’s a result of the global warming that is already locked in by emissions human civilisation has already created. And there will be other impacts of climate change, too. Sometimes the world will change faster than plant and animal species can shift to survive it. 

People will die – in fires, in heatwaves, in floods – or lose their livelihoods, unable to grow crops, or find fish in an increasingly depleted ocean. And most of them won’t be in the suburbs of wealthy Australian cities, but in communities with fewer resources to protect themselves, in Africa, in Southeast Asia, in Latin America. 

Indigenous people will be particularly vulnerable.

And so far, the world is unprepared. Global emissions are still increasing – which means these impacts of climate change are going to come harder and faster. Almost half the world’s cities don’t have plans to adapt to this changing world at all.

But – and this is the crucial part – it’s not yet entirely out of our control.

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There are still things we can do to save lives threatened by the climate change humans have created.

Sea walls can keep out rising tides and stormwater. Or, even better, protected wetlands, mangroves and coral reefs can preserve important habitats while also buffering towns and cities from the energy of the sea. 

Reforestation can help capture carbon – and prevent landslides when there’s extreme rain. 

Boosting green spaces in cities – where most people on earth will live as the climate crisis continues – can help keep them cool. 
The IPCC report also said that humans are not separate from the natural world, we are a part of it. And by working with it, we might even protect ourselves.

“Really the core DNA of the story we tell in the Working Group II report is how closely human and natural systems are interconnected.”

Debra Roberts

But, as Debra Roberts explains, this only works up to a point.

“We know that there are adaptation limits. Adaptation cannot prevent all losses and damages, and even with effective adaptation limits will be reached with higher levels of warming.”

Debra Roberts

Climate mitigation – cutting emissions, fast – remains the absolute priority. 

The faster emissions rise, the more severe the impacts of climate change will be, and the less time humans, plants and animals will have to adapt and survive.
That “brief” window humanity has to secure a “liveable” future is closing, before our eyes.

 Today’s story was written by Ellen Halliday and produced by Ella Hill.


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