The burden and opportunity of climate change

Will forests be able to adapt quickly enough to the effects of climate change? Photo credit: Jan van der Ploeg for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)

Will forests be able to adapt quickly enough to the effects of climate change? Photo credit: Jan van der Ploeg for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)

The warming of the climate system is unequivocal and unprecedented.

Oceans have warmed to a depth of 700 meters with huge implications for marine life and aquatic ecosystems. Around 30 percent of atmospheric greenhouse gases have been absorbed by the oceans, resulting in ocean acidification.

From 1901-2010, the mean sea level rose 19 centimeters globally, with huge impacts on island and costal communities. If we ‘do nothing’, there will be no arctic sea ice during September by the middle of the century and sea levels will rise by almost a meter by the end of the century.

If the average annual temperature goes up by 3 degrees Celsius, there will be a huge loss in biodiversity. Climate change, furthermore, will cause more heat waves and extreme precipitation events, threatening life, property, and unique ecosystems.

These were some of the scary and depressing facts presented by Rajendra K. Pachauri during a keynote speech at the Center for International Forestry Research’s (CIFOR) Forests Asia Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, on May 5-6. Pachauri is the Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has produced a comprehensive report that summarizes the current state of scientific knowledge on climate change. A synthesis report will be finalized on 31 October, 2014.

Specifically related to how forests are affected by climate change, Pachauri pointed out that both animal and plant species have already started migrating. Forests will find new locations that are similar to the location where they developed. Whether they will be able to keep up with the rapid pace of change is still to be determined.

In addition, an increase in the occurrence of heat waves will make forest fires more likely. This has already been observed in many locations, although it can sometimes be hard to directly attribute fires to climate change.

In the face of all of this information, it is easy to throw up our collective hands and welcome the end of the world.

Arctic sea ice could disappear by the middle of the century. Photo credit: Brigitte Djajasasmita

Arctic sea ice could disappear by the middle of the century. Photo credit: Brigitte Djajasasmita

Pachauri, however, is refreshingly optimistic. While he stresses that there is an urgent need to work on adaptation and mitigation, his opinion is that this is an opportunity and not a burden.

In terms of mitigation, he says the path is clear if we want to limit global temperature increase to below two degrees Celsius. We can do this by changing global energy supply and working to reduce (and maybe have negative) greenhouse gas emissions in Agriculture, Forestry, and other Land Use (AFLU) activities.

The goal is to triple or quadruple low/no carbon energy supplies — a target that is within reach, as many renewable and efficient energy technologies are already readily available. For AFLU, which currently contributes to 24 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, the opportunity lies in carbon capture and storage technology, as well as switching to bio-energy, Pachauri said.

The cost of taking this path is actually very low. If we follow these prescriptions, the reduction in annual consumption globally is only 0.06 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP). This means that in 2013, we would have only lost 1.7 percent of global GDP, according to Pachauri.

Furthermore, he said, if we take into account the core benefits of mitigating temperature rise — benefits like higher energy security, reduced pollution at the local level, protected ecosystems, and arguably more employment opportunities — these costs are actually even lower.

The benefits of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change — not just extreme events, but the longer-term impacts on human health, agriculture and food security — are critical for humans and our fellow earthlings.

Dealing with climate change is an exercise in risk management, says Pachauri. If we don’t take action, there will be terrible outcomes, especially for vulnerable species and human populations. As shortages abound and livelihoods are compromised, conflict and a disruption of peace are very real consequences. We need to stabilize the earth’s atmosphere and work to harvest the core benefits from mitigation if these eventualities are to be avoided.

“What we really confront is the possibility of some serious damage if we don’t take action,” says Pachauri. “However, if we set on a course of mitigation and adaptation, we can create a cleaner planet and a set of conditions by which we will have a better world for the future.”

Mia Signs is a communications fellow with the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE).

 

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