Comment: Time for action on climate change

Comment: Time for action on climate change

One of the possible reasons for many policymakers’ lack of action over climate change is the NIMTO syndrome: they acknowledge the need for (possibly unpopular) measures but they decide not to act because the likely fallout is “Not In My Term of Office”.

Yes, we are involved in a slow motion catastrophe but I don’t have to do anything about it now – it is a popular view.

Such an approach is possible because no-one is really clear about when the worst will start happening. Such is the see saw variability of global temperatures, that different groups can clutch at straws to push their side of the argument. Meanwhile, politicians can sit on their hands and the rest of us don’t feel the need to worry overly about what constitutes discretionary travel, for example, whether we are living and working in a sustainable way.

But now a group of scientists have produced research that should give everyone pause for thought.
A new and massive analysis of all climate models by scientists at the University of Hawaii has found that within 35 years, even the lowest monthly dips in temperatures will be hotter than we’ve experienced in the past 150 years.

The tropics will be the first to exceed the limits of historical extremes and they will experience an unabated heatwave that threatens biodiversity and heavily populated countries that are the least well equipped to adapt.

Camilo Mora and her colleagues in the College of Social Sciences’ Department of Geography have published an index identifying the year in which the mean climate of any given location on earth will shift continuously outside the most extreme records experienced in the past 150 years. 

Under a business-as-usual scenario, the index shows the average location on earth will experience a radically different climate by 2047. Under an alternate scenario with greenhouse gas emissions stabilised the global mean climate departure will be 2069.

“The results shocked us. Regardless of the scenario, changes will be coming soon,” said Camilo Mora in her commentary. “Within my generation, whatever climate we were used to will be a thing of the past.”

The scientists calculated the index for additional variables including evaporation, precipitation and ocean surface temperature and acidity. When looking at sea surface pH the index indicates that we surpassed the limits of historical extremes in 2008. That’s explained by the fact that ocean pH has a narrow range of historical variability and because the ocean has absorbed so much human caused CO2.

Changes will be felt most urgently and acutely in the tropics because tropical species are unaccustomed to climate variability making them more vulnerable to relatively small changes. So the places with the world’s greatest diversity of marine and terrestrial species will experience unprecedented climates some 10 years earlier than anywhere else on the earth, the scientists believe.

“This work demonstrates that we are pushing the ecosystems of the world out of the environment in which they evolved into wholly new conditions that they may not be able to cope with,” said Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Ecology, commenting on the study.  “Some ecosystems may be able to adapt but extinctions are likely to result.”

The changes will affect social systems as well because the tropics are home to most of the world’s population and contribute significantly to total food supplies, as well housing much of the world’s biodiversity.

In predominantly developing countries, over one billion people under an optimistic scenario, and five billion under a business as usual scenario, live in areas that will experience extreme climates before 2050, the report says. Clearly it raises concerns for changes in the supply of food and water as well as human health in predominantly developing economies.

And the countries identified as being the first to be impacted by unprecedented climates are the ones with the least capacity to respond.

Jane Lubchenco, former Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA) and now of Oregon State University, who was not involved in the study, said in a statement that the paper is unusually important because it builds on earlier work but brings biological and human consequences into sharper focus: “It connects the dots between climate models and impacts to biodiversity in a stunningly fresh way and it has sobering ramifications for species and people.”

The ramifications for the insurance industry on a direct and indirect level don’t need spelling out in detail: so many tropical countries are earmarked as growth markets, if they are not already important.

The study says unsurprisingly that any progress to slow climate change requires a bigger commitment now from developed countries to reduce emissions but also more extensive funding of programmes to minimise the impacts of climate change.

“These results should not be reason to give up. Rather they should encourage us to reduce emissions and slow the rate of climate change,” Mora says. “This can buy time for species, ecosystems and ourselves to adapt to the coming changes.”

The study, entitled “The projected timing of climate departure from recent variability” was published in the October 10 edition of Nature journal.


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