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The impacts of climate change affect all life on Earth. These impacts are putting pressure on our planet—on people and other living things, on economies and governments; making our societies as we know them increasingly vulnerable and proving an ever-increasing risk to the planet’s biodiversity.
The gases released through burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) create a blanket around Earth, trapping heat which creates more extreme and unpredictable weather. Heatwaves are becoming more frequent and more intense. As can be seen in the last few years, we experience longer droughts, longer and more severe fire seasons, more intense storms, less ice and snow cover, floods, rising sea levels and our oceans are becoming warmer and more acidic.
What effect is this changing climate having on the environment and communities and what must we do to mitigate this?
How climate change is affecting the environment
The planet’s landmass with all its mountains, hills, plateaus, and plains, offers life-supporting necessities including oxygen, food, and water. A large portion of the world’s biodiversity lives on land. Due to the way that land surfaces, like forests, control the planet’s temperature and contribute to the storage of carbon, land “plays a key role in the climate system” as a crucial carbon sink.
Land-based ecosystems absorbed about 30% of the carbon emissions produced by human activities, like the combustion of fossil fuels, in just the previous ten years. Deforestation, urbanisation, industrialisation, agricultural expansion, and unsustainable farming practises, however, are increasing pressure on our land and compromising its capacity to sustain food production, preserve freshwater and forest resources, as well as regulate the climate and air quality.
Image credit: barrierreef.org
Impacts of climate change in ecosystems in Australia
Warming temperatures and a rise in the frequency, duration, and severity of heatwaves are two of the most obvious effects of the impacts of climate change currently being seen in Australia and elsewhere. These effects range from poleward shifts in marine species distribution to increases in coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef and Western Australian reefs. They also include changes in the growth and distribution of plants, animals, and insects. Some of these changes can have an immediate influence on human activities, such as the effects of coral bleaching on tourism and the effects of shifting fish and other marine organism distributions on commercial and recreational fishing.
Future climate change and associated sea level rise will have an influence on numerous areas, including the natural environment, food security, infrastructure, and human health.
Among Australia’s terrestrial ecosystems, some of the most susceptible to climate change are alpine systems as habitats move to higher altitudes and contract in size; tropical and subtropical rainforests due to warming temperatures (moderated or intensified by rainfall changes); coastal wetlands affected by sea-level rise and saline intrusion; inland ecosystems dependent on freshwater and groundwater that are affected by altered rainfall patterns; and tropical and subtropical grasslands.
Life on land and in the ocean migrates from regions that have grown too warm, to regions that were formerly too cool as a result of climate change. Climate change is anticipated to cause the extinction of some existing species that won’t be able to migrate, such as those that live on mountain summits, and those who suffer the invasion of new species. It’s possible for seemingly insignificant changes, like the extinction of a crucial pollinator species, to have significant effects.
Carbon dioxide has both positive and negative direct impacts on ecosystems. On land, it promotes the growth of some trees and plants. When CO2 is absorbed into the ocean, ‘ocean acidification’ occurs, impeding the formation of shells by organisms such as corals, causing coral degradation and death.
Climate change interacts with the effects of other pressures
The impacts of climate change often amplify other pressures. For example, many natural ecosystems are already under pressure from urban erosion, fragmentation, deforestation, invasive species, introduced pathogens, and water resources.
Some societies suffer from war and civil war, overpopulation, poverty, and land sinking in populated deltas. In such a complex system, multiple stresses don’t just add up. Rather, they cascade in unexpected ways.
Climate change impacts interacting with other pressures may therefore transform some ecosystems and societies into new states with significant impacts on human well-being. Developed countries like Australia are well-positioned to manage and adapt to such cascading impacts due to their moderate vulnerability to climate change. However, developing countries, especially least developed countries, face risks from projected impacts that may exceed their adaptive capacity. As climate change intensifies, adaptive capacity may also exceed that of developed countries, especially under high-emission pathways.
Impacts of climate change on people
The effects of climate change on various societal segments are interconnected. Food production and human health can be harmed by drought. Flooding has the potential to spread illness and harm infrastructure and ecosystems. Health problems can reduce worker productivity, raise mortality, and have an impact on the availability of food. Impacts of climate change can be seen in every area of the world we live in.
However, the effects of climate change are not uniform throughout the nation and the world; even within a single community, different neighbourhoods or people may experience different effects. Underserved communities, who frequently have the highest exposure to risks and the fewest means to respond, might become increasingly vulnerable because of long-standing socioeconomic disparities.
Ethical and fair transition – Human rights and renewables
A wide range of policies, including fiscal policy, trade and investment policy, research and innovation policy, industrial policy, labour policy, and renewable energy policy, will need to be developed in order to create the right conditions for equitable access to clean and renewable energy while promoting and protecting human rights and mitigating climate change for all.
All levels of government, utilities, international development organisations, and financial institutions must actively participate in the creation and implementation of policies, from local to global.
All actors in society, from consumers to commercial organisations, must be encouraged to use renewable energy and new enabling technologies on a far larger scale by national governments.
Businesses are transforming their strategies, operations and supply chains to meet demand for clean energy. However, the renewable energy sector is facing criticism due to human rights abuses in the supply chain, such as forced labour. Businesses that fail to implement due diligence measures may compromise their sustainable reputation by ignoring the human cost associated with the push for clean energy.
The global legislative response to improve environmental, sustainability and human rights due diligence has focused on value chain interrogation. Many jurisdictions have imposed due diligence or reporting obligations on businesses in relation to human rights risks in their operations and supply chains. In Australia the Modern Slavery Act 2018 states the implementation of targets and actions for identifying and mitigating human rights impacts, and then reporting publicly on a periodic basis. Reports are publicly available and broadly assessed by customers, investors, civil society, and other stakeholders. For regimes that require due diligence and reporting, the obligation extends beyond the business to the supply chain and in some cases to other business partners in the value chain.
Businesses in the clean energy sector must conduct due diligence and report on their human rights impacts, as well as respond to greater due diligence from investors and financiers. Failure to identify and manage a business’s human rights impacts can have severe consequences, such as fines and sanctions regimes.
Even businesses not directly affected by these developments should develop effective human rights due diligence procedures due to the pace of legislative change globally and the emphasis placed on the ‘just transition’.
Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) reporting is a type of disclosure of performance in connection to significant ESG opportunities and risks, both qualitatively and quantitatively, to explain how these significant subjects influence a company’s strategy and overall performance. Therefore, executives and boards may use ESG to increase trust with their staff, shareholders, and the communities in which they do business by viewing it as an opportunity rather than a risk.
Why we need to act on climate now to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change
The cost of doing nothing will ultimately be much higher than the cost of taking immediate action.
Some research suggests inaction could cost the world’s economy US$178 trillion by 2070.
Solutions to mitigating and adapting to climate change offer many benefits such as new employment opportunities, wealth creation, and improvement in people’s quality of life such as through reduced health impacts from pollution; while lowering greenhouse gas emissions and fostering climate resilience.
Global warming is an international problem that can only be solved through the actions and policies of all nations, but it is also a matter for personal action. The greatest contribution to global warming comes from carbon dioxide released as a waste product when we burn fossil fuels to provide energy. We can reduce these emissions by reducing the amount of energy we use and by changing the source of that energy to renewables. The average Australian household emits 14 tonnes of greenhouse gases every year, half of which is from electricity generation, which is equivalent to having three cars on the road for a year.
There are numerous advantages to cutting down on short-lived climatic pollutants. These include preventing millions of preventable deaths each year, enhancing food security by avoiding the loss of tens of millions of tonnes of staple crops each year, preserving crucial ecosystems and ecosystem services, lowering the risk of hazardous and irreversible climate tipping points, and significantly advancing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
More and more businesses have proactively adopted climate-related strategies and goals. The kind of strategy each company chooses is influenced by its products and production processes, the regulatory environment, and its business model. Some goals centre on lowering greenhouse gases, while others do so via reducing energy use. Some act as absolute restrictions, while others are based on revenue and production levels. Goals and targets can also be used to guide supply chain purchases and product usage.
Therefore, measuring greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and understanding the businesses carbon footprint is the first step for any organisation looking to create a robust corporate emissions reduction strategy. When the carbon footprint is done, it should be analysed to determine which business operations produce the most emissions or where the hotspots are, then the businesses can implement a strategy to lower emissions.
Ambitious companies, demonstrating leadership when it comes to sustainability will go beyond simply understanding their emissions and commit to a science-based target to reduce their emissions to net zero in line with climate science and the Paris Agreement. ESG strategies are also becoming common as organisations look wholistically at their business to lower emissions, but also understand their obligations to a just transition socially.
For any business ready to take a leadership role, B Corp certification should be considered. B Corp evaluates a business is through an ESG-type lens factoring in a company’s governance, worker rights, environmental impact, customer impact and community engagement. As B Corp certification is aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals and verified by an independent body – B Lab. This certification to a verified sets certified B Corps apart as demonstrably both reducing negative impacts and making a positive impact on society and the planet.
Both individual and collective climate action is needed
Finally, it should go without saying that we, as individuals, also need to do our part in reducing our impact. This is true not only for our advocacy efforts with legislators (such as how we vote), our community activism, but also for the sustainability initiatives we take in our day-to-day lives.
We can make a difference by changing the energy we consume at home away from fossil fuels including gas, to renewables and where we can by installing rooftop solar. We also need to be conscientious of the climatic impact of the food we consume, our shopping habits, how we travel, the use of plastics, and the companies we choose to support (or not support).
Real change, however, only occurs when we take collective action, and we are capable of doing far more than just reducing carbon emissions.
Communities that unite in opposition to fracking, pipelines, and oil drilling in residents’ backyards. These local victories safeguard everyone’s right to clean air and water as well as a healthier future of our planet. Even though climate change may be a worldwide emergency, local climate action is key in the transition to a net zero world.
We have an obligation to think through the consequences of our decisions and to confirm that they genuinely contribute to lessening rather than merely shifting the burdens of climate change. It’s critical to keep in mind that certain communities, namely low-income communities and marginalised communities, are disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change, which connect with and exacerbate so many other environmental, economic, and social challenges.
Because of this, it is the duty of our leaders to give the needs of these communities first consideration when formulating climate policies. We are not addressing the causes of the climate issue if individuals who are on the front lines are not involved in discussions about climate solutions or do not experience the advantages of things like cleaner air and greater job prospects.