All regions of the world can expect to feel the impacts of changes to the climate in the coming years, according to a major new scientific study, with the role of humans in warming the planet now “unequivocal and indisputable”.

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released today said scientists are now observing changes to the climate “unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years”, with some of the changes already set in motion, such as continued sea level rise, irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years.

The IPCC said its new report also reflects major advances in the science of attribution – the understanding of the role climate change is playing in intensifying specific weather and climate events.

While it could take 20 to 30 years for global temperatures to stabilise, the IPCC said strong and sustained reductions in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases would limit climate change.

“Stabilising the climate will require strong, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and reaching net zero CO2 emissions. Limiting other greenhouse gases and air pollutants, especially methane, could have benefits both for health and the climate,” said Panmao Zhai, co-chair of the IPCC working group.

According to the report, human activities have been responsible for approximately 1.1°C of warming since 1850-1900. Over the next 20 years, global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5°C of warming.

Without “immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions”, the report said limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.

For 1.5°C of global warming, there will be increasing heat waves, longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons. At 2°C of global warming, heat extremes would more often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health, the report shows.

Multiple other changes will occur across different regions, including more intense rainfall and associated flooding, as well as more intense drought in many regions.

Coastal regions will see continued sea level rise through the 21st century, leading to more frequent and severe coastal flooding. Extreme sea level events that previously occurred once in 100 years could happen every year by the end of this century, the IPCC said.

Permafrost thawing, warming oceans and more frequent marine heatwaves and increased urban flooding are among the other risks set to increase throughout the century.

Valérie Masson-Delmotte, also a co-chair in the IPCC working group, said the report represented a “reality check”. 

“We now have a much clearer picture of the past, present and future climate, which is essential for understanding where we are headed, what can be done, and how we can prepare.

“It has been clear for decades that the Earth’s climate is changing, and the role of human influence on the climate system is undisputed.” 

The IPCC Working Group I report, Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis, was approved by the IPCC’s 195 member governments on 6 August following a virtual approval session that was held over two weeks starting on 26 July.

The report is the first instalment of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, which will be completed in 2022.

The Insurer comment

The report makes for sobering reading and further highlights the need for the insurance industry to play an active role in engaging with governments and civil society to address the challenge.

Improvements in attribution science increase potential for climate liability claims against those responsible for high emissions.

And the call for a rapid and sustainable reduction in emissions will further amplify reputational pressure that may emerge for those carriers deemed to be facilitating climate change through their underwriting activities.

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