UN panel warns of far-reaching climate consequences

7 April 2014

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest global climate science study at the end of March, indicating that the effects of climate change had already left their mark on "all continents and across the oceans," with the effects felt everywhere.  Although ambitious climate actions are called for that could stem many potential consequences, the study acknowledges that a certain amount of consequences are already locked-in. "Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change," said Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the panel, at a news conference.

The UN body - established in 1988 - periodically assesses the state of climate change. The most recent study represents the second part of its Fifth Assessment Report, following the first part which was published last September. The findings, together with the final instalment due out in mid-April, will likely add fuel to the ongoing climate negotiations to pin down a universal climate pact by the end of next year.

For the first time in seven years, the panel makes observations on the impacts, adaptation needs, and vulnerabilities caused by climate change. Listed observations include affected food production and threatened future food security. Ocean ecosystem shifts have led to certain fish species extinctions, while other populations could alter their migratory patterns, with the potential to reduce fish catches in some areas of the tropics by as much as 60 percent. Furthermore, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, while continued altered snow and ice melts are predicted. Heat waves and heavy rain intensification are also on the agenda.

The study - which represents input from a total of 309 lead coordinating authors drawn from 70 countries - also warns of major economic consequences caused by rising emissions, suggesting that a 2 degree Celsius temperature increase above pre-industrial levels could cut global economic output by between 0.2 and 2.0 percent a year. In its previous September instalment, the scientists focused on the cause of global climate change, confirming a 95 percent probability that it is primarily influenced by human activity. In the panel's previous report, issued in 2007, scientists had put that same figure at 90 percent. (See BioRes, 2 February 2007).

The Nobel-prize winning IPCC faced a slew of criticism after the 2007 report, which incorrectly cautioned that the Himalayan glaciers could melt as early as 2035. In a move seemingly designed to address the past mishap, the latest report's executive summary notes that the volume of scientific publications for assessing climate sciences has more than doubled between 2005 and 2010, with significant increases in publications related to adaptation.

Risk assessment, mitigation, and adaptation

The study also takes the unprecedented step of framing climate change as a series of risks. These include risk of death for those in low-lying coastal zones, severe ill-health and disrupted livelihoods for urban populations, further mortalities due to extreme weather, eco-system degradation, and loss of livelihoods, particularly among rural communities.

Three broad categories are put forward as affecting climate risk - vulnerability or lack of preparedness, assets or people in harm's way, and climate hazards. The study contends with high confidence that both adaptation and mitigation choices in the near future will affect the scale of climate risks throughout the 21st century.

"We live in an era of man-made climate change," said Vicente Barros, co-chair of the working group charged with producing the document. "In many cases, we are not prepared for the climate-related risks that we already face. Investments in better preparation can pay dividends both for the present and for the future," he continued.

"When we look ahead to the possibilities of changes in climate that are much larger than the ones we've already seen, the risk of much greater impacts is very clear," said fellow co-chair Chris Field, echoing his colleague's comments. But Field also signalled that adaptation based on sound risk assessment was feasible. "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," he said.

Poverty impacts, climate finance hurdle

Among the vulnerable populations identified, the study also suggests that climate-related hazards may disproportionately affect those least able to cope economically.

The 2,500-page tome includes language noting the gap in available funding for climate change responses in developing countries. "Therefore, there is a related need to design delivery channels so that funding benefits the poor, as they often are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and climate-related disasters," the authors continue. According to the New York Times, detailed references to the issue were scrubbed out of the executive summary, destined to be read by top policymakers, with several developed countries suggested the finance language was too controversial.

Funding for climate action has been one of the most difficult issues to resolve in international climate negotiations. The troubled 2009 Copenhagen climate meet saw developed countries agree to provide US$10 billion per year as "fast start" financing for the years 2010-2012, as well as to establish a separate Green Climate Fund (GCF) that would offer US$100 billion by 2020 to help developing countries tackle rising emissions and adaptation challenges. Although rich nations initially provided a degree of financing, subsequent contributions have been more limited. A number argue the agreed-upon sum is far too high, given the lack of public funds due to domestic hardship and fragile economic recovery.

At the Warsaw climate conference last year, red lines were once again seen around financing, with developing countries seeking to operationalise previously negotiated and unspecified language on "institutional arrangements" to help them deal with extreme weather events. A key stumbling block of the meeting, the outcome document referenced a "Warsaw international mechanism," although the governance of the body remains unclear. (See BioRes, Warsaw Update No. 2, 24 November 2013).

Author controversy

A high-profile row clouded the release of the study, with a senior author requesting that his name be removed from the executive summary. Professor Richard Tol of the University of Sussex - who had been working as a senior economist on a chapter addressing climate change's economic impact - called the report "alarmist," telling the Financial Times that identifying people in war zones as more vulnerable to climate change was "silly." Tol's comments caused backlash from other members of the climate community.

Next instalment leaked

Coming hot on the heels of March's news, Reuters reported that it had seen a chapter of the next study in the series. The news agency claimed that the draft text would call for tougher curbs on greenhouse gases, by both rich nations as well as emerging economies, in order to keep global warming from breeching an internationally agreed-upon 2 degree Celsius limit above pre-industrial levels.

ICTSD reporting; Additional sources, THE NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS, FINANCIAL TIMES, THE GUARDIAN

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