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A polar bear stands among a thin ice floe off the northern shores of the Svalbard Archipelago.
Perspective

Reflections on the IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report: adaptation, loss and damage

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Perspective

Reflections on the IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report: adaptation, loss and damage

Join three SEI researchers, who have assumed various roles in past IPCC reports, as they reflect on the IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report’s critical messages on adaptation and loss and damage.

Richard J. T. Klein, Sukaina Bharwani, Zoha Shawoo / Published on 26 April 2023

A polar bear stands among a thin ice floe off the northern shores of the Svalbard Archipelago.

A polar bear stands among a thin ice floe off the northern shores of the Svalbard Archipelago. Photo: Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images / Getty.

The Synthesis Report offers a high-level overview of findings from the assessment reports produced by each of the three Working Groups:

Furthermore, it integrates key insights from the three Special Reports produced during this cycle: Global Warming of 1.5°C, Climate Change and Land and The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released its highly anticipated Synthesis Report, marking the culmination of its sixth assessment cycle. The IPCC’s AR6 Synthesis Report provides a comprehensive summary of our current understanding of climate change, its widespread impacts and risks, as well as the strategies for mitigation and adaptation. The report delivers a clear message: immediate and bold action is essential to avert a climate crisis, as our current efforts are falling drastically short.

The report leaves no room for doubt – human-induced emissions have destabilized our planet, and the choices we make today will determine our collective future. Urgent action is needed to limit emissions and prevent further warming. 

The 1.5°C report evaluated the differences between pathways to maintaining global average temperature increase below 1.5°C and those below 2°C, in the broader context of sustainable development and the global response to climate change.

Francis X. Johnson, SEI Senior Research Fellow and a member of the IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report’s Extended Writing Team.

Join three SEI researchers, who have assumed various roles in past IPCC reports, as they reflect on the IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report’s critical messages on adaptation and loss and damage.

Adaptation progress and challenges 

The Synthesis Report opens on a positive note, highlighting progress in adaptation planning and implementation across all sectors and regions worldwide. This progress has generated multiple benefits, with at least 170 countries and numerous cities incorporating adaptation in their climate policies and planning processes. 

Despite these advances, the report reveals that many adaptation responses remain fragmented, incremental, sector-specific and unevenly distributed across regions. Adaptation gaps, or the differences between what is being done and what is needed, will continue to widen under current levels of implementation. The IPCC also underscores the growing evidence of “maladaptation,” which disproportionately affects marginalized and vulnerable groups. Maladaptation occurs when narrowly focused, short-term actions inadvertently create persistent vulnerabilities, exposures and risks that are difficult to reverse. 

The IPCC cautions that the effectiveness of adaptation measures will decline as global warming increases. To address this challenge, closing adaptation gaps and avoiding maladaptation must be prioritized. However, several key barriers hinder these efforts, including limited resources, insufficient engagement from the private sector and citizens, inadequate mobilization of finance, low climate literacy, weak political commitment, restricted research and/or slow and low uptake of adaptation science and a general lack of urgency. 

Emphasizing its key finding from the Working Group II contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report, the IPCC asserts that as global warming intensifies, climate change risks will become increasingly complex and difficult to manage. Interactions between multiple climatic and non-climatic risk drivers will compound overall risks, leading to cascading effects across sectors and regions. For instance, climate-driven food insecurity and supply instability are projected to increase with increasing global warming, intersecting with non-climatic risk factors such as urban expansion competing for land with food production, pandemics and conflict. Ongoing research by SEI focuses on addressing compound, cascading and cross-border climate risks, and contributes to the Adaptation Without Borders global partnership. 

Richard J.T. Klein
Richard J. T. Klein

Team Leader: International Climate Risk and Adaptation; Senior Research Fellow

SEI Headquarters

Equitable and just adaptation 

Building on key messages from Working Group II, the Synthesis Report reiterates the need for equitable and just adaptation, which hinges on effective multi-level governance established through inclusive decision-making processes. To achieve transformative system shifts and behavioural changes, we need processes that encourage meaningful participation and trust-building among diverse actors across multiple scales, integrating diverse knowledge, interests, preferences and worldviews, including Indigenous and local knowledge.  

The report emphasizes the importance of avoiding interventions that exacerbate existing vulnerabilities or create new ones, as well as maladaptive responses that increase inequity and marginalize vulnerable groups. Responses that reinforce existing or past power structures, such as colonial legacies that continue to impact on development, are also newly recognized in this report as key barriers to climate-resilient development.  

To confront these challenges, we need innovative, dynamic and integrated ways of working together across disciplines, engaging various actors to create a shared understanding of a common desired future, beyond relying solely on more or new climate science. Such inclusive approaches are not yet widespread enough, or adopted at the scale necessary to meet the urgency of the challenge we face.  

Ongoing research into aspects like transdisciplinary knowledge co-production processes helps identify enablers and barriers to using climate information in decision-making and enables science and societal actors to co-design transformative solutions together. This builds on the work of SEI’s Climate Services Initiative, which prioritizes climate service “processes” over the creation of additional tools and models. This results in capacity building and climate literacy, which the report identifies as essential for raising awareness, understanding risk, and accelerating planning and action. 

The report reminds us of the fundamental need to forge new transdisciplinary collaboration methods that foster meaningful participation and bring climate science closer to decision makers’ context-specific needs. These approaches must integrate social, cultural and governance considerations, as well as Indigenous, local and scientific knowledge, to seize the rapidly closing window of opportunity for enabling climate-resilient development. 

Sukaina Bharwani

Senior Research Fellow and weADAPT Director

SEI Oxford

Addressing loss and damage

The Synthesis Report reiterates a key message from Working Group II, emphasizing that losses and damages from climate impacts are already a reality, particularly for vulnerable communities that have historically contributed the least to climate change. The report reveals how economic damages in sectors like agriculture, forestry and energy cascade down, affecting individual livelihoods through losses in property, infrastructure, human health and food and water security. Additionally, it identifies non-economic losses and damages, such as cultural loss, biodiversity decline and mental health impacts.  

Importantly, the report underscores that losses and damages related to climate change will increase as global temperatures rise, highlighting the limitations of adaptation actions. It states, with high confidence, that even the most effective adaptation measures cannot prevent all losses and damages. Some human and ecosystem limits to adaptation, as well as technological and socioeconomic barriers, may render certain adaptation actions infeasible.  

These findings suggest that support for adaptation must extend beyond financial, technical and capacity building measures. Additional resources are necessary to address losses and damages that cannot be, or have not been, prevented through adaptation. This support may include financial aid for recovery and rehabilitation following sudden-onset and ongoing slow-onset events, as well as assistance for activities like planned relocation or alternative livelihoods provision. Such measures can help vulnerable communities recover from the impacts of climate change. 

The Synthesis Report also highlights the linkages between loss and damage and financial support for mitigation and adaptation. It explains that incurred losses and damage can impact countries’ economic growth and limit the availability of financial resources, adding constraints for adaptation. Consequently, the report emphasizes the need for additional financial support from developed to developing countries.  

The newly established Loss and Damage fund could play a critical role in addressing the gaps identified by the IPCC, providing much-needed support for recovery and rehabilitation. SEI’s ongoing research on operationalizing loss and damage finance aims to generate insights on how this new fund could be designed to be both effective and aligned with climate justice.

Zoha Shawoo
Zoha Shawoo

Scientist

SEI US

Meet the SEI researchers who contributed to the IPCC reports: 

Richard J. T. Klein, Senior Research Fellow, acted as a review editor for the chapter on decision-making options for managing risk in the Working Group II report on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. 

Sukaina Bharwani, Senior Research Fellow, served as a contributing author to Chapter 17 on decision-making options for managing risk in the Working Group II report on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. 

Zoha Shawoo, Associate Scientist, served as a contributing author and chapter scientist on climate resilient development pathways in Chapter 18 of the Working Group II report on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.

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