Last week, Working Group II, the sub-committee of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that is responsible for assessing the impacts of climate change, revealed substantial portions of their latest report, the second in what will eventually become a series of three. Though not scheduled to be formally released in its final form until later this month, the report is already sending shockwaves throughout the world.
Climate change is not some abstraction, nor is it a theory. It is a new challenge that is putting considerable pressure on the already stressed areas of human existence, namely hunger, disease, drought, flooding, refugees and war.
Scientists have already observed numerous impacts from warming, including heat waves across the Southern Hemisphere. Severe floods, such as the one that displaced 90,000 people in Mozambique in 2008, are becoming widespread in the global South. In the North, intense downpours have increased in severity. Changes in the Arctic, where the heating is most pronounced, is affecting not only the polar bear, but the culture and livelihoods of indigenous people in northern Canada.
According to Mashable, the report finds that, “Climate change poses the greatest risks to the most vulnerable populations within all nations, and a potentially existential risk to poorer countries already struggling with food insecurity and civil conflict, as well as low-lying small island states.”
The primary drivers are:
- Changing precipitation patterns and rates of ice and snow melt
- Movement of numerous species seeking familiar conditions into new habitats, and species extinctions
- Impact on crop yields which have been predominantly negative
- Heat and cold-related mortality
- Expanded distribution of disease vectors
- Climate-related extreme events, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires.
These drivers disproportionately impact the poor and those living in regions of conflict due to hampered adaptation, and inadequate or damaged infrastructure.
From a decision-making perspective, the report says, “Responding to climate-related risks involves decision-making in a changing world, with continuing uncertainty about the severity and timing of climate-change impacts and with limits to the effectiveness of adaptation.”
Observations made in the report constitute a grim list. Sea ice is collapsing; oceans are rising and becoming more acidic as they absorb more CO2. Organic matter, long-buried in Arctic permafrost, is beginning to thaw — giving off large quantities of methane gas, which further accelerates the warming.
In particular, the world’s food supply is found to be at considerable risk, particularly threatening to the poor, to whom substantial price increases could prove deadly.
“Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change,” said Rajendra K. Pachauri, the IPCC chairman.
The report offers a variety of scenarios that illustrate the impacts that climate change will have on human society. It speaks of “profound disruptions,” regardless of technological and economic changes, though they will be particularly severe if “if emissions are allowed to continue at a runaway pace.”
The report also added that, “throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger.”
These impacts could then, in turn, lead to violent conflicts over resources, bringing with them the risk of death or injury on a wide scale, probable damage to infrastructure and public health, displacement of people, and potential mass migrations.
These impacts are not hypothetical, nor are they relegated to a select number of computer-modeled scenarios. They are happening right now.
- Some regions around the Mediterranean are drying out, leading to political destabilization in North Africa and the Middle East.
- Snow pack is declining in the Western U.S.
- In Alaska, melting sea ice is causing erosion — forcing entire communities to relocate.
- Several periods of cereal and food price increases have occurred.
- The polar bear was added to endangered species list.
- 70,000 square miles of forest has been lost in the Rocky Mountains of the U.S. and Canada since 2000.
- Arctic ice is 22 percent below normal.
- Sea level rose 7 inches during the 20th century.
- Ninety percent of the world’s glaciers are shrinking.
- The percentage of the Earth’s surface suffering drought has more than doubled since the 1970s.
- The World Health Organization estimates 150,000 extra deaths per year due to temperature increase. That number is expected to double by 2030.
There wasn’t a lot of good news in the report, though the IPCC did point out growing evidence that businesses and governments around the world are beginning to take the threat seriously, making plans to adapt and prepare for the anticipated changes, alongside shrinking pockets of willful ignorance and blatant obstructionism, particularly here in the U.S.
Christopher B. Field, co-chairman of the working group that wrote the report and an earth scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif. said, “I think that dealing effectively with climate change is just going to be something that great nations do.”
Moving forward, investments must simultaneously address both reducing emissions and preparing for the onslaught of expected impacts.
Examples include a $1 billion investment by ConEd, at the behest of the Public Service Commission in the wake of hurricane Sandy to upgrade the electricity grid for New York City, making it less vulnerable to storms and flooding. Other utilities will receive similar requests.
Sadly, the ones expected to be hardest hit will be those least able to afford preparations. The report suggests that $100 billion per year will be required to do this. Wealthier nations will be asked to foot the bill, but in these times of economic hardship, and with the small number of people that now hold most of the money so unwilling to part with any of it, we can expect a bumpy road ahead.
Image credit: Robert Wyatt: Flickr Creative Commons
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He writes for numerous publications including Justmeans, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, and Energy Viewpoints. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining romp that is currently being adapted for the big screen. Now available on Kindle.
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