U.N. Climate Report: Be Afraid Globally, Prepare Locally

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Cracked mud dries on the shores of the 'Lac de Joux' lake, in Le Pont, on April 19, 2011. 
National Journal
Ben Geman
March 31, 2014, 3:48 a.m.

Cli­mate change has already be­gun tak­ing a toll on the nat­ur­al world and hu­man so­ci­ety “on all con­tin­ents and across the oceans,” ac­cord­ing to a sweep­ing new re­port from the U.N. cli­mate pan­el that warns of greatly in­creas­ing risks this cen­tury as glob­al emis­sions rise.

Poor and low-ly­ing re­gions are es­pe­cially vul­ner­able, but cli­mate-borne risks ex­tend across the globe in a world that re­mains ill-pre­pared des­pite in­creased ad­apt­a­tion plan­ning, ac­cord­ing to the U.N.’s In­ter­gov­ern­ment­al Pan­el on Cli­mate Change.

The re­port cata­logs changes un­der­way, such as lower crop pro­duc­tion in some re­gions, mar­ine spe­cies shift­ing their range, melt­ing gla­ciers, coastal erosion, and more.

“Im­pacts from re­cent cli­mate-re­lated ex­tremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyc­lones, and wild­fires, re­veal sig­ni­fic­ant vul­ner­ab­il­ity and ex­pos­ure of some eco­sys­tems and many hu­man sys­tems to cur­rent cli­mate vari­ab­il­ity,” the re­port finds.

The re­port also warns that risks will get much tough­er to man­age as emis­sions rise the plan­et con­tin­ues heat­ing up.

It drew a quick re­sponse from the White House, which is push­ing a second-term cli­mate agenda that’s fo­cused on both new emis­sions rules and ad­apt­a­tion plan­ning.

“The re­port high­lights the wide­spread and sub­stan­tial ob­served im­pacts of cli­mate change, and its grow­ing ad­verse ef­fects on live­li­hoods, eco­sys­tems, eco­nom­ies, and hu­man health. Im­port­antly, it also con­cludes that ef­fect­ive ad­apt­a­tion meas­ures can help build a more re­si­li­ent glob­al so­ci­ety in the near term and bey­ond,” said John Hold­ren, Pres­id­ent Obama’s sci­ence ad­viser.

Mash­able’s An­drew Freed­man has a com­pre­hens­ive look at the re­port here, while The New York Times un­wraps the big re­port on cli­mate ef­fects, ad­apt­a­tion, and vul­ner­ab­il­ity here.

Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry seized on the re­port to pro­mote the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s cli­mate agenda and said, “Deni­al of the sci­ence is mal­prac­tice.”

He’s also try­ing to cre­ate mo­mentum for rocky glob­al cli­mate ne­go­ti­ations that are aimed at craft­ing a sweep­ing in­ter­na­tion­al ac­cord in late 2015.

“We’re com­mit­ted to reach­ing an am­bi­tious agree­ment to re­duce glob­al green­house-gas emis­sions with oth­er coun­tries in the United Na­tions Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change,” Kerry said in a state­ment Monday.

The goal of glob­al cli­mate ne­go­ti­ations is to help lim­it warm­ing to 2 de­grees Celsi­us above prein­dus­tri­al levels. That may be slip­ping out of reach as emis­sions rise, but the au­thors say that some of the high­er tem­per­at­ure pro­jec­tions will bring daunt­ing prob­lems.

“Glob­al cli­mate-change risks are high to very high with glob­al mean tem­per­at­ure in­crease of 4°C or more above prein­dus­tri­al levels … and in­clude severe and wide­spread im­pacts on unique and threatened sys­tems, sub­stan­tial spe­cies ex­tinc­tion, large risks to glob­al and re­gion­al food se­cur­ity, and the com­bin­a­tion of high tem­per­at­ure and hu­mid­ity com­prom­ising nor­mal hu­man activ­it­ies, in­clud­ing grow­ing food or work­ing out­doors in some areas for parts of the year,” the new re­port warns.

The re­port is chock-full of warn­ings but finds some bright spots, not­ing that gov­ern­ments are be­gin­ning to craft ad­apt­a­tion plans and in­teg­rate cli­mate change in­to de­vel­op­ment plans. But more is needed, au­thors say.

“Cli­mate-change ad­apt­a­tion is not an exot­ic agenda that has nev­er been tried. Gov­ern­ments, firms, and com­munit­ies around the world are build­ing ex­per­i­ence with ad­apt­a­tion,” said Chris Field, a Stan­ford Uni­versity pro­fess­or who helped lead the study. “This ex­per­i­ence forms a start­ing point for bolder, more am­bi­tious ad­apt­a­tions that will be im­port­ant as cli­mate and so­ci­ety con­tin­ue to change.”

The IP­CC study provides ad­voc­ates of emis­sions curbs plenty of am­muni­tion as they seek a mean­ing­ful pact while glob­al emis­sions con­tin­ue to soar.

Cli­mate change can in­dir­ectly boost the risk of vi­ol­ent con­flict by “amp­li­fy­ing well-doc­u­mented drivers of these con­flicts such as poverty and eco­nom­ic shocks,” the IP­CC au­thors state.

Else­where, the study notes that today the ef­fect of cli­mate change on hu­man health is small com­pared with oth­er stressors. But the risks will grow.

“Un­til mid-cen­tury, pro­jec­ted cli­mate change will im­pact hu­man health mainly by ex­acer­bat­ing health prob­lems that already ex­ist,” the re­port states, but adds: “Throughout the 21st cen­tury, cli­mate change is ex­pec­ted to lead to in­creases in ill-health in many re­gions and es­pe­cially in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries with low in­come, as com­pared to a baseline without cli­mate change.”

Mean­while, As­so­ci­ated Press cli­mate cor­res­pond­ent Seth Boren­stein zer­oes in on a shift from the IP­CC’s 2007 fore­cast:

The last time the pan­el re­por­ted on the ef­fects of warm­ing in 2007, it said it was too early to tell wheth­er cli­mate change would in­crease or de­crease food pro­duc­tion, and many skep­tics talked of a green­ing world. But in the past sev­er­al years the sci­entif­ic lit­er­at­ure has been over­whelm­ing in show­ing that cli­mate change hurts food pro­duc­tion, said Chris Field of the Carne­gie In­sti­tu­tion of Sci­ence and lead au­thor of the cli­mate re­port.

The re­port is the second phase of the latest big as­sess­ment of cli­mate change from the IP­CC, which pro­duces a sweep­ing re­view about once every five years.

The first phase was re­leased late last year and found that hu­mans have been the main driver of glob­al warm­ing since the mid-20th cen­tury, while a third up­com­ing phase will look at op­tions for stem­ming cli­mate change.

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