One billion people threatened by climate change, UN report warns

Posted on September, 25 2019

By 2050, as sea levels rise and fish stocks shift due to a warming ocean, one billion people who live in low-lying coastal areas will be at risk.
Monte Carlo, Monaco - 25 September, 2019                

No part of the world will be spared from the impacts of climate change as oceans warm and ice sheets and glaciers melt, causing rapid sea-level rise that could affect one billion people by 2050.

Accelerating changes in the oceans and cryosphere - the earth's snow and ice-covered places - is one of the most dramatic consequences of the climate crisis. A new UN report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes it clear that changes will continue and be irreversible even if the climate stabilises. For instance, ice-dependent polar species such as walrus and penguins are threatened as their sea ice habitat is disappearing. 

However, we can manage the worst risks by sharply cutting emissions. This will give people and nature more time to adapt. Protecting and restoring marine ecosystems, for example, is one of the most powerful and cost-effective ways to combat the devastating effects of climate change.

Ester Asin, Director of WWF European Policy Office said: 
“The Arctic is melting at record speed, and so are our chances of fighting the climate crisis. The oceans are under threat, with ecosystems such as coral reefs and global fisheries at risk of extinction. We must listen to the science, which tells us time and again what the people on the streets are demanding: that we need a radical response from our leaders, and we need it now. The next EU Commission President wants a climate law and this must be centred on a climate-neutral EU by 2040 and 65% emissions cuts by 2030, made in a socially fair way. There is no time to waste.”

The report highlights the rapidity at which the impacts to our ocean and cryosphere are likely to play out if we do not take urgent action. Many coastal communities here in Europe and worldwide are already feeling the impact of destructive weather patterns, rising sea levels, depletion of coral reefs and mangroves, and the loss of marine resources including fisheries.

By 2050, as sea levels rise and fish stocks shift due to a warming ocean, one billion people who live in low-lying coastal areas will be at risk. This could lead to large-scale migration as people avoid flooding and follow the fish they depend on. Some ecosystems, like those supported by coral reefs and polar sea ice, stand a very real risk of completely disappearing. 

The IPCC report follows Monday’s Climate Action Summit in New York City, where the world's biggest emitters failed to rally to the UN Secretary-General’s call to bring ambitious, concrete plans to further cut their emissions.

Notes to editors:

Key takeaways from the IPCC report ‘summary for policy-makers’:
  • All people on Earth depend directly or indirectly on the ocean and cryosphere.
  • The low-lying coastal zone is currently home to around 680 million people (around 11% of the 2010 global population), projected to reach more than one billion by 2050.
  • It is virtually certain that the ocean has warmed unabated since 2005, continuing well documented trends going back to at least 1970. That warming is attributable to anthropogenic global warming, with the ocean taking up more than 90% of the excess heat in the climate system since 1970. The rate of ocean warming has more than doubled since 1993 
  • Satellite observations show that marine heatwaves (periods of extremely high ocean surface temperatures) have very likely doubled in frequency from 1982 to 2016 and that they have also become longer-lasting, more intense and more extensive. Globally, the frequency of marine heatwaves, is very likely to increase by a factor of approximately 50 by 2081-2100, relative to the frequency of occurrence in 1850-1900. The largest frequency increases are projected for the Arctic Ocean and the tropical ocean. 
  • Warming-induced changes in the spatial distribution and abundance of fish stocks have already challenged the management of some important fisheries and their economic benefits. As a consequence, the effectiveness of existing international and national ocean and fisheries governance to achieve their objectives in securing ecosystem health, generating economic benefits, and supporting livelihood, culture and other aspects of human well-being will be challenged
  • Anthropogenic climate change has increased observed precipitation, winds and extreme sea level events associated with some tropical- and extra-tropical cyclones, playing a role in multiple coincident or sequential extreme events that have led to cascading impacts. Extreme El Niño and La Niña events are likely to occur more frequently under RCP8.5 2 and are likely to be associated with more extreme responses in several regions across the globe that currently experience wetter or drying conditions during such events. 
  • Sea level is projected to continue to rise and extreme sea level events that are currently rare will occur frequently by 2050. Without major additional adaptation efforts relative to today, projected changes in mean sea level and extreme sea level events will markedly increase future flood risk to low-lying coastal communities

In Monte Carlo, WWF has a team of experts available to speak on the thematic areas of climate change, oceans, the polar regions and glaciers. They are:
  • Dr. Stephen Cornelius, chief adviser on climate change and IPCC lead, WWF
  • Dr. Peter Winsor, Director, WWF’s Arctic Programme
  • Heike Vesper, Director Marine Programme, WWF Germany
We also have experts around the world who can speak on the thematic areas of climate change, oceans, the polar regions and glaciers. Contact Sarah Azau Tel: +32 473 573 137 for further information.

In Brussels, WWF has a team of experts who can speak on the thematic areas of climate change, oceans, the polar regions and glaciers. They are:
  • Imke Lübbeke, Head of Climate and Energy, WWF European Policy Office
  • Samantha Burgess, Head of Marine Policy, WWF European Policy Office
  • Andreas Baumueller, Head of Natural Resources Policy, WWF European Policy Office
Please contact Larissa Milo-Dale Tel. +32 483 26 20 86 for further information

Media assets are available below. All should be credited to WWF. For more information and context please see
Ittoqqortormit is a remote settlement in Eastern Greenland. Climate change is the single biggest threat to polar bears. As the sea ice around Ittoqqortoormiit diminishes, polar bears are spending longer on land and coming into town. In recent years, there has been a worrying increase in human-polar bear encounters throughout East Greenland.
© James Morgan / WWF-UK