New IPCC Report: How Vulnerable are We to Climate Change?


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Rice paddies

Few if any nations are expected by the IPCC to avoid at least some adverse effects of climate change. Image courtesy of the IPCC.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change, has just issued a stark warning of the vulnerabilities of many nations, including the USA,  to future climate change.

The 2014 IPCC Report

As part of the current round of reports based on major climate model simulations published prior to 2012, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just released a report describing the likely vulnerability and needs of nations to climate change.

The IPCC published this report, a largely qualitative assessment of the likely occurrences, on 31 March 2014.  The report focuses on risk, which is a new area of departure for the IPCC. It differs from the science report which is quantitative, but makes no comments about risks and mitigation.

IPCC Report: Fact, or Conjecture?

The new report is based entirely on the scientific published record, assessed by teams of relevant scientists. It therefore strictly contains no new information, but like other IPCC reports is a synthesis and interpretation of material that has already been scientifically-verified using the normal scientific publishing procedures.

Economics Professor Withdraws His Name

One UK economics Professor felt unable to support the IPCC conclusions as being too alarmist, and withdrew his name from the report, as noted by the Daily Mail. However, economics, is by its nature, a somewhat qualitative and at times unreliable profession. Regardless, it is clear from previous reports such as the Stern report, that climate change, if ignored, will likely have far larger impacts on the economy than the likely cost of fixing the greenhouse gas emissions in the first place.

IPCC’s Main Conclusions

The IPCC report includes a wealth of information about the current and future ranges of climate change. Some of the most significant conclusions are listed here:

Melting Arctic Ice

Melting of Arctic Ice – the inevitable result of climate change – will have repercussions.. Image by NASA

1. Climate change affects coastal systems and low-lying areas: The IPCC expects that coastal flooding and land loss will affect hundreds of millions of people as global temperatures rise and sea levels rise due to melting of glaciers and land-locked snow and ice.

Although sea level rise is a much-quoted prediction from climate models, the situation is far from simple.

Melting land ice in the north, for example over Greenland, will result in the land rebound effect, whereby the continental plates lift due to the reduction of load. In the north, the land could rise an amount which will compensate in part for the overall global sea level rise.

However, in the south Asian region the land rebound effect is small, so the effect of ice melt is more directly noticeable. “Some small island states are expected to face very high impacts,” says the report.

2. Effect of climate change on marine systems: Biodiversity reduction will challenge the fishing industry. Projected warming will result in higher latitude movements of some species, and reductions in species in the lower latitudes and fisheries – scientists expect ‘dead zones’ to increase. “Climate change adds to the threats of overfishing and other non-climatic stressors,” says the report. Ocean acidification due to absorption of carbon dioxide also adds to the problems of marine life, particularly shellfish, as their shells are more easily dissolved in the more acidified water.

3. Climate change and food security: For the major crops (wheat, rice and maize) science projects that climate change will reduce production overall, but the effects will be different depending on the type of crop and where it grows. The report concludes that, “Risks to food security are generally greater in low latitude areas.

The issue of food security is significant. With the steadily increasing world population and reduced food security, we can expect increasing levels of starvation worldwide, unless the global community takes serious action.

4. Effect of a changing climate on livelihoods and poverty: Scientists expect climate change to slow down economic growth, and make it more difficult to reduce poverty, as well as eroding food security. The report warns that, “wage-labor-dependent poor households that are net buyers of food are expected to be particularly affected due to food price increases.

5. Climate Change and urban areas: Cities face particular problems: “heat stress, and extreme precipitation pose risks, especially for those lacking essential infrastructure.” The report points out the importance of local government in resolving climate related issues, and of course this may not be fully developed in many countries.

6. Climate Change and rural areas: Scientists expect major impacts through water availability and supply, and agricultural incomes. “These impacts are expected to disproportionately affect the welfare of the poor in rural areas,” concludes the report.

7. Key economic sectors and services: The IPCC expects climate change to slow economic growth, but for most sectors non-climatic issues will be far more important. The report concludes that “more severe weather events are projected to increase losses.

These are points already made in the Stern report, regarding the effects of climate change on the UK economy. In that case, scientists expect that the effects will be negative overall, but other countries could fare far worse. That is not to say that the UK has not had its problems. The global effect on weather of the changes in the jet stream during the winter just passed resulted in major flooding of the UK and  major storms in the USA, as noted here in Decoded Science. The costs of those storms are still being accounted for on both sides of the Atlantic.

8. Climate change and human health: In many regions, we can expect to see increases in ill health. “Examples include greater likelihood of injury, disease, and death due to more intense heat waves and fires,” they tell us, as well as increased likelihood of starvation from reduced food production.

Researchers expect some benefits, such as fewer deaths due to severe cold, but negatives, such as increases in food and water-borne diseases, would more than outweigh the positives.

9. Human security and our changing climate: IPCC scientists expect climate change to increase the movement of people seeking better conditions or resources elsewhere. The report points out that “changes in migration patterns can be responses to both extreme weather events and longer term climate variability and change.

Denying Climate Change… When It’s Already Affecting Us

It is fashionable in some quarters still to deny the reality of climate change. Decodedscience has spoken out against this on many occasions, most recently on 21 March. Denialism has its advantage in this – if you don’t believe in climate change, there’s nothing you need to change. It’s like the U.S. debt burden which never gets paid, but is passed on to the next generation.

There is a difference, however, when it comes to the climate: Climate change may be irreversible.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science spoke out only recently that global society risks irreversible change to the climate, as reported in the Guardian newspaper. The recent IPCC report mentions that climate change effects are now occurring already in almost every part of the world.

It mentions “agriculture, human health, ecosystems on land and in the ocean, water supplies and some people’s livelihoods.” The USA (nor any other country) is unlikely to be immune. Already wheat yields in parts of the U.S. plains have shown precipitous drops in some places due to lack of rainfall. Once the land is parched, dustbowl conditions are set up and the remaining topsoil is removed by the winds. Then, nothing grows.

On 7-11 April, the IPCC meets to finalise its third report of the current Fifth Assessment, addressing the topic of mitigation against climate change – what we can do to stop this trend while we can still make a difference.

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