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Threat from global warming heightened

Global warming is driving humanity toward a whole new level of many risks, a United Nations scientific panel reports, warning that the wild climate ride has only just begun.

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Irreversible and severe damage is to be inflicted on the planet from climate change. Feel like you've read that before?

For decades the world's credible scientific institutions have been warning of the threats climate change poses to almost all facets of life on this planet. The latest assessment by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is another full account of the problems we will cause with our continued tampering with the earth's climate by releasing large amounts of greenhouse gases.

I know, this does feel familiar doesn't it? You are a little bored, I can sense your eyes glazing over. But bear with us, there are a few important things to take in - there is after all a lot at stake.

Scientific evidence says things are changing right now, across our planet, and not generally for the better.

Scientific evidence says things are changing right now, across our planet, and not generally for the better. Photo: Kirk Gilmour

First the IPCC report tells us that climate change is not some far-off, future concern. The scientific evidence we now have to hand tells us things are changing right now, all over the planet - and not generally for the better.

It is more obvious in the natural world (though the human world is not completely untouched). For instance, species all over the world are turning up in new places because their old home is not as comfortable. Arctic sea ice and warm-water corals may already be changing - again not for the good - in ways we will not be able to rectify. This is our canary in the coalmine.

Then there is the trouble to come. This is the tricky part. As humans we want certainty. We want to know right now what we can expect, when to expect it, and how bad it will be.

Unfortunately we are talking about a complete reordering of the earth's climate systems that has the potential to touch almost everything that occurs on this planet in some way. It is no easy task to say exactly how every element of the natural and human world will respond and when we might reach tipping points from which we can't return. And what it all might cost.

The IPCC can lay down broad brushstrokes for us, and it is more confident in these than ever before. The food produced by crops will likely decline. Sea-level rise will affect those who live in low-lying areas. Heatwaves will be worse, and will probably cause more death and illness. Floods, too.

In all it will be a less certain and more dangerous world, particularly for the world's poor. Nor one we should look forward to.

And the longer we allow ludicrous amounts of human-caused greenhouse gases to be released into the atmosphere, and the warmer the planet becomes, the more likely we will unleash these problems on to ourselves, and the more ferocious they will be.

The IPCC says we should think about these great problems as risks that as a planet we should seek to manage while we can.

In the first instance we should try to avoid them. That means getting on top of our emissions problem pretty quickly. And then we should prepare for the damage that has already been done. We should create more climate-resilient cities and agriculture and help the natural world where we can.

Because with stakes this high, how much risk are we really comfortable with?