FEATURE: IPCC’s planetary health check calls for serious action
CDKN Chief Executive, Sam Bickersteth explains what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s AR5 tells us about the impacts of climate change and how developing countries are already working towards climate compatible development
Today the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) serves up a worrying health check on the planet with the publication of its report on the physical science of climate change. The implications of the IPCC’s findings are clear: the long-term trend of global warming continues, and the possibility for a safe, liveable planet depends on society’s willingness to curb harmful greenhouse gas emissions.
The IPCC says that there is a 95% certainty that climate change is caused by human beings – a higher level of scientific certainty than ever before – and that each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade, since records began in 1850. The physical science section of this Fifth Assessment Report , or ‘AR5’ for short, uses new and more advanced climate models than previously. These show different scenarios for future warming, based on the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
IPCC scientists conclude that “global surface temperature change for the end of the 21st century is likely to exceed 1.5°C relative to 1850-1900” for all scenarios except the most optimistic. For the more pessimistic scenarios, average temperature rise “is likely to exceed 2°C.” Under the most pessimistic scenario, the world could see a catastrophic 4.8°C average temperature rise.
Thomas Stocker, the Chair of IPCC Working Group I that produced this report, said in today’s press conference that these averages are global and it requires new and different methodologies to anticipate the local effects of climate change. These local effects, which will be felt most keenly by climate-vulnerable communities in the global South, will include damaging weather extremes such as heavy rainfall – or little rainfall at all.
In global terms, the IPCC report finds that it is “very likely” (at least 90 percent probable) that heatwaves will occur more often and last longer. Most land areas in mid-latitudes and wet tropical regions are “very likely” to see more intense and frequent extreme rainfall events. Thanks to more sophisticated climate models, IPCC scientists have found that sea levels will rise during the 21st century and this is “very likely” to be faster than the rise already observed and will include extreme sea level rise in some places that will endanger coastal settlements.
Listen to the doctor
Science frequently deals with probability and likelihood, rather than certainty. Often we accept medical treatment as the basis of a “most probable diagnosis”. What’s more, if a doctor tells us that certain behaviours are putting our health at risk (take smoking, for example), we may change them. Just as understanding of the risks of smoking has led to a dramatic change in public and private attitudes to smoking, it is time for societies, businesses and governments to take action based on the results of the planetary health check from the IPCC.
We know that the treatment is a transition to a low carbon and resilient economy. We also know that the later we leave it, the more difficult and costly it will become.
Any observer of the global climate talks knows that the collective political commitment to tackle greenhouse gas emissions doesn’t match the scale of the challenge. It will take new levels of commitment from decision-makers to steer global emissions onto this ‘optimistic’ track.
Build on climate leaders’ momentum for behaviour change
From work done by CDKN and its Alliance members, it is clear that there are many progressive businesses and governments that are already taking plenty of action to make the transition.
Many businesses already understand this, because dealing with risk is at the heart of what they do. And climate change, as PwC’s Celine Herweijer puts it, is “the mother of all risks”. In a recent report on the climate change strategies of the world’s largest 500 companies by PwC and CDP, four out of five (83%) companies in the Global 500 index have reported that physical impacts of climate change are a risk. From retailers dealing with supply chains around the world, to mining companies concerned about water scarcity, or energy companies concerned about extreme heat or hurricanes, the business community understands that climate risks are changing and will affect them.
An increasing number of developing country governments have been putting climate change policies in place – in response to a range of drivers, or motivations. Science is just one of those drivers. For many of the countries where CDKN is working, it is rising costs arising from climate-related extreme weather events that is driving action. Countries like El Salvador, Kenya and Pakistan, and small island nations such as the Marshall Islands and Caribbean community are not sitting on their hands waiting for a perfect answer in the science or a global climate deal. They see the devastating effects of droughts, floods and sea level rise at home.
They are integrating climate risk management into development planning. They are putting climate resilience and low carbon growth strategies at the heart of national development plans. Even without detailed climate models for their countries, they are acting now on the best available information, drawing on their own resources and capabilities. The IPCC’s latest assessment justifies their far-sighted actions to date, and will enable a better assessment of risk in the future. Let us work together to ensure that others follow their lead – nationally and internationally.
For more information, read:
The IPCC Working Group I’s Summary for Policymakers
The IPCC Working Group I’s ‘Headlines’
The results of other parts of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment will be published in March and April 2014 respectively and will focus on: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (Working Group II) and Mitigation (Working Group III)
Image courtesy of Flickr / Creative Commons / YogendraJoshi