What happens if we fail to adapt to climate change?

University of Leeds
University of Leeds
5 min readOct 12, 2022

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Lea Berrang Ford, Professor of Climate and Health at the Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds, explains why reducing carbon emissions is only part of the answer to climate change.

Reducing global emissions to prevent catastrophic climate change is not enough. Even if we manage to reach net zero, populations around the world will still need to adapt their lives dramatically to cope with the warming we’ve already caused. If we fail to do that, our health and our lives are at risk.

Working with the UK Met Office, we estimated that on current trajectories, the extreme heat events caused by climate change will lead to around 10 million deaths by 2100. Even if we can keep within the target of temperatures rising by 1.5oC set by the Paris Agreement, we’ll only see five percent fewer deaths by 2050 and maybe half by 2100. If we take steps to adapt to extreme temperatures, we can avert majority of those deaths. If we do both — keep to the Paris targets and adapt — then we can reduce those deaths to nearly zero.

Indigenous communities suffer more

I work in an international research team that’s been asking indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon, the Canadian Arctic and in south-west Uganda about their main health concerns that are sensitive to a warming climate. Their answers were: infectious disease, food security, water-borne disease, mental health and maternal health. We’re working with them to identify the social and environmental factors that make these communities more vulnerable to climate change now and in the future.

For the Canadian Inuit, for example, both wind direction and when the ice breaks up has an impact on hunting. So we are modelling how these things might change over the coming decade, to help them see what choices might be open to them.

Many in the Amazonian community see their traditional way of life coming to an end and feel the best option for their children is to learn Spanish, get an education and move into mainstream society. This is due to many factors but climate change is clearly one.

The impact of climate change is specific to each community. The Batwa in Uganda, for example, are far more affected by extreme weather events than their non-indigenous neighbours who live on the other side of the hill. ​Following heavy rainfall, for example, the Batwa suffer from more waterborne diahorreal disease than their Bakiga neighbours due to more limited access to fresh water and soap, which are critical for sanitation. Their way of life and levels of poverty in the community makes them more vulnerable.

How much adaptation is enough?

I was one of the authors asked to tackle this question for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2022 report. The IPCC is the UN body responsible for advancing knowledge on human-induced climate change and its last report underpinned the Paris Agreement in 2015 that set a target of no more than 1.5oC rise in global temperatures.

That target gives us a clear goal and unit of measurement to assess how well our mitigation is working. Unfortunately, there isn’t an equivalent for adaptation. Are we aiming to ensure minimal impact from climate change, no impact at all or take steps to adapt that will result in a better, more equal and healthier world? What can we measure to assess if our adaptation is working?

Our job was to bring together all the research on adaptation conducted since the last report and draw out any conclusions. For previous reports, this might have involved looking at hundreds of research papers. But the field of climate research has exploded so we needed to digest tens of thousands of research papers.

It’s a two-and-a-half-year undertaking, working in teams to organise and assess all the literature. Then we go through internal reviews within the team, before what we’ve written gets reviewed externally, updated and finally approved line by line by governments. The process is incredibly detailed, serious and painstaking, to ensure that everything we say can be clearly linked back to the evidence. This enables us to say how much confidence we can have in any of the findings based on how strong the evidence is that underpins them.

We found that although adaptation measures are increasing, they remain ad hoc and incremental, usually just making small adjustments to business as usual. This kind of approach is unlikely to ever be enough to respond to the challenge the world faces.

Changing how people behave

To know what steps to take, we need to fully understand what we face. My team have also assessed all the research conducted worldwide on the health impacts of climate change. Our conclusion was that, even in regions where we know there’s likely to be a significant climate health burden, such as North Africa, the Middle East or Central Asia, there are substantial gaps in the evidence needed to drive adaptation measures. There’s also little research on mental health worldwide, yet we know that the psychological burden of the impacts of climate change on people’s lives is going to be significant.

As we adapt, we need to ensure that the measures we take don’t increase our emissions and energy usage — such as relying only on air-conditioning to cool buildings. Ultimately, the ideal would be that mitigation and adaptation measures work together to provide a triple win: they reduce emissions, help us be more resilient to climate change and improve our health. Active transport is a good example — where people walk or cycle for shorter journeys — as this both reduces emissions, makes us less dependent on fossil fuels and makes us fitter.

Often adaptation is about changing how people behave, but you need health and social systems to support that. When there is extreme heat, for example, this might be: adapting working hours for people with outdoor jobs; using shopping malls as public cooling zones for people to access at the hottest times of the day; changing areas of black tarmac to natural surfaces to prevent our cities acting as ovens; having systems to check on vulnerable people in their homes; and effective public messaging so people know what to do.

Looking at climate change in relation to health ensures that we bring the debate — and the responses — back to where it most matters: to people and the day to day. Rather than just studying high temperatures or floods or drought, climate and health research focuses on the details of how we can survive them. Because the conclusion of the IPCC report was clear — it is our very survival that is at stake.

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