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The U.N. says climate impacts are getting worse faster than the world is adapting

Xinxiang, in China's Henan Province on July 26, was one of many places that suffered extreme flooding this year. A U.N reports finds climate impacts are getting worse faster than countries can adapt.
Xinxiang, in China's Henan Province on July 26, was one of many places that suffered extreme flooding this year. A U.N reports finds climate impacts are getting worse faster than countries can adapt.

As world leaders meet in Glasgow to try to curb planet-warming emissions an uncomfortable reality underlies their efforts: They've gathered on a shrinking island in a rising sea, where temperatures are already hotter and storms more severe.

A new report by the United Nations says that some impacts from climate change are already irreversible, and our efforts to adapt are lagging.

Meanwhile, a gap is growing between the amount of money that's available — and what's needed — to protect communities from rising seas, hotter temperatures and worsening storms.

"Even if we were to turn off the tap on greenhouse gas emissions today, the impacts of climate change would be with us for many decades to come," says Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme.

The new report — aptly named "The Gathering Storm: Adapting to climate change in a post-pandemic world" — urges world leaders to make communities more resilient, given that reality. And it warns that they're missing an opportunity to do so.

More than $16 trillion have been spent globally to jumpstart economies during the COVID-19 pandemic, but only a small portion of that has been aimed at climate adaptation efforts. The pandemic, meanwhile, has shrunk government revenues and disrupted supply chains, hampering adaptation projects, particularly in developing countries.

"Climate change and the pandemic share some striking similarities: like the pandemic, the climate change crisis is a systemic problem that requires coordinated global, national and local responses," the report says. "Many of the lessons learned from handling the pandemic have the potential to serve as examples of how to improve climate adaptation and financing."

Developing countries are being hit the hardest

The countries least responsible for the warming planet are often hardest hit, and the U.N. says those climate impacts are getting worse faster than countries are adapting.

A recent report by the medical journal The Lancet found that climate change is worsening human health in nearly every measurable way.

The World Health Organization says that by the end of the decade, climate change is expected to contribute to approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.

Developing countries with weak health systems, it says, will be least able to cope. But they won't be alone.

Earlier this year, hundreds of people died during a heatwave that baked the Pacific Northwest and Canada and thousands more people died during a heatwave in Western Europe than would normally occur.

Climate-fueled wildfires torched entire towns in Canada and around the Mediterranean. And flooding caused billions of dollars worth of damage in China, India and Europe.

The U.S. experienced 18 climate-related natural disasters this year that exceeded $1 billion in costs. Last year it had 22.

"2021 was the year in which climate impacts hit developed and developing countries with a new ferocity," the UN report says in its foreword. "So, even as we look to step up efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions — efforts that are still not anywhere strong enough — we must dramatically up our game to adapt."

There are reasons for optimism

A growing number of countries are creating policies, laws or plans to adapt to a warming world, the UN report says. More than three-quarters of the world's countries have adopted at least one policy to make their communities more secure, and more projects are attracting sizable investments.

But the world's wealthiest countries, which have contributed roughly 80 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions warming the planet, still haven't delivered on a promise to give developing countries $100 billion a year to help them deal with the effects of climate change. That money was supposed to be available last year.

Earlier this week, John Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, told reporters the money would be mobilized by 2023, but doubts remain and the needs may be far higher. The U.N. report finds that estimated adaptation costs are likely to be five to ten times higher than current international financial flows.

Even in rich countries like the U.S., adaptation financing is nowhere near where it needs to be, says A.R. Siders, a climate adaptation expert at the University of Delaware.

"We're not taking enough action at the national level, at the state level or globally," she says. "And when we are dealing with [the consequences of climate change], we're dealing with them very much in a disaster response way, which is 'Hey, that disaster happened. Let's try to get everybody back to their pre-disaster normal.'"

With a rapidly warming climate though, she says, "Normal doesn't work."

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