Published: March 22, 2023 By

Policymakers should accelerate and prioritize adaptation to climate change this decade to avert rising risks for humans and nature—and many feasible and effective strategies already exist. 

This is just one of many conclusions outlined in the report released Monday by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report is the final installment of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, providing a synthesis of the past eight years of climate change science, as well as economic and social analysis. 

Matthew Burgess

Matthew Burgess, assistant professor of Environmental Studies, a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research and Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and the director of the Center for Social and Environmental Futures

While it is still possible, the report states that the world is unlikely to keep global temperatures below 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial levels (a goal set by the Paris Agreement in 2016), although every tenth of a degree still matters. The report comes as the planet has already warmed 2 F (1.1 C) and is experiencing more extreme weather events, natural disasters and increasingly dangerous impacts on life in every corner of the globe. All this will only continue unless swift action is taken to reduce and eliminate all fossil fuel emissions before 2050, the authors emphasize. 

“This report ties it all together to frame the big-picture issues and developments in our understanding of climate change, its impacts, where we're headed and what needs to be done,” said Matthew Burgess, assistant professor of Environmental Studies, a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research and Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and the director of the Center for Social and Environmental Futures.  

Burgess, also an affiliate faculty in economics, studies long-run economic growth and its implications for climate change and society. He also studies the political polarization of climate change, and how we can reduce it. 

CU Boulder Today spoke with Burgess about what the latest report means in the context of economics and politics in 2023 and beyond. 

What’s the biggest takeaway from this synthesis report? 

The authors say that we're quite likely to miss the 1.5 degree [Celsius] target on the path that we're heading, and we're off track from the 2 degree [Celsius] target. But on the positive side, the report also reflects a new consensus that the worst-case scenarios are in the 3 to 3.5 degree [Celsius] range, rather than the 4 or 5 degree [Celsius] range, and the most plausible scenarios in general are somewhere between the 2 and 3 degree [Celsius] range. In making the point that the worst-case scenarios seem less likely, the working group chapters that the synthesis report summarizes specifically cited our research.

What are adaptation and mitigation?

Adaptation is broadly, things that help us cope with climate change. And mitigation is things that help us reduce our emissions or remove carbon from the atmosphere. Not surprisingly, but unfortunately, adaptation funding gaps are greatest in low-income countries. 

Why is it beneficial to fund and act on adaptation? 

The report emphasizes that adaptation is severely underfunded, even compared to mitigation, which is also underfunded. That is kind of economically surprising, because adaptation pays local dividends immediately. If I build a seawall to protect a coastal city, that benefits that city immediately, and it benefits only that city. In contrast, mitigation has diffuse and long-term benefits. If I reduce my emissions by a certain amount, then that's going to lower climate damages for decades across the whole world. So, from an economist's perspective, you would think that it would be easier to raise money for adaptation than for mitigation. 

Why has adaptation been underfunded?  

Until recently, there's been a bit of a taboo in climate advocacy around discussing adaptation, because it has been seen as akin to giving up. If we're adapting, then we're admitting that we're not going to mitigate. Fortunately, we have recently started to move away from that false dichotomy and think we can and must do both. We can and must reduce our emissions, and we also need to adapt. 

What challenges are there for adaptation? 

One of the reasons that some of those worst-case scenarios are looking less likely is that [global] economic growth has not been what we thought it was going to be, and with growth comes greater [fossil fuel] emissions — so less growth has led to less realized and projected warming. But that also has some negative implications for adaptation. There's lots of evidence that being a richer country makes it easier to adapt. So, while our work does suggest that some of those worst-case scenarios are less likely, it also suggests that our job is that much harder in terms of making sure that developing countries have opportunities to develop and have the resources they need to adapt and mitigate. 

How might this report impact politics? 

In the IPCC press release and summary for policymakers, the frames that are used in the solutions put forward tend to be ones that are favored in the United States by the political left: things like equity, gender and Indigenous knowledge. I didn't see much mention of things like reduced regulations to speed up permitting in order to build more power lines and renewable capacity to decarbonize the grid faster, more economic growth as an adaptation strategy, or more nuclear power. All of those would be things that are more likely to be put forward by moderates like Joe Manchin, or people part of what call themselves the eco-right. 

I would guess this is likely to increase the political polarization around climate change, or at least play into ways in which climate change is already polarized in this country. 

How polarized is it?

In some respects, the issue of climate change is just as polarized as it ever was. But I also see the debates consistently, in recent years moving away from, “Is it real?” And toward, “What should we do about it?” I think it's a good thing. But I suspect this is going to be a major election issue in 2024.

What makes you optimistic about this challenge ahead of us? 

A lot of the things that we can do as a society to mitigate climate change to reduce our emissions are already cost competitive. That's a win-win, and there are lots of win-wins out there. I think that there's a broad coalition that can be built around pursuing those kinds of wins. If we're going to face probably the most complex challenge humanity has ever faced over decades in a democracy, we're going to do it together or we're not going to do it. So, I hope that we can do it together.