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The latest from the climate scientists is not about Armageddon but about how a better world might be built in the face of climate challenges
"Official prophecy of doom: Global warming will cause widespread conflict, displace millions of people and devastate the global economy," screamed the headline in last week's Independent newspaper about the upcoming report from the U.N. climate panel. When I read it, it struck me as a bit....well, last decade.
Apocalyptic warnings about climate wars, climate refugees and climate-driven economic collapse have been flying around in the media for the past 10 years or more. But scientists, not least, would like to think the world has moved beyond Armageddon in our understanding of what climate change means for human society.
That isn't to say that the report on climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - whose key findings will be released on Monday - will paint a rosy picture of how people and ecosystems are likely to be affected by a warmer world.
In the last major assessment report in 2007, the world's scientists characterised climate impacts as "emerging", says Heather McGray, director of vulnerability and adaptation for the World Resources Institute, "but now they have found the impacts of climate change as widespread and consequential and significant all over the globe".
The draft summary of the report, which is still under negotiation at a meeting in Japan, also includes predictions about what will happen to our seas, forests, cities, economies, food and water supplies, health and security under different warming scenarios, and - crucially - according to whether or not we try to adapt to higher temperatures.
SOLUTIONS NOT JUST PROBLEMS
Some of what the final version is expected to say is scary. Climate change will slow economic growth and poverty reduction, eroding food security and creating new poverty traps throughout this century.
Average crop yields will fall by up to 2 percent per decade, and each degree of warming is projected to decrease renewable water resources by at least 20 percent for an additional 7 percent of the global population.
By 2100, due to climate change and development patterns, and if adaptation doesn't happen, hundreds of millions of people will be affected by coastal flooding and displaced due to land loss, the majority of them in Asia.
And climate change indirectly increases the risks of violent conflict, which will increasingly shape national security policies, the draft warns.
According to WRI's McGray, the report offers a nuanced view of who will be worst-affected. It will point out, for example, that people who are socially and economically marginalised – including children and the elderly - are more vulnerable, particularly if they are also members of groups such as herders who depend most directly on natural resources for a living.
But in addition to providing more comprehensive evidence on the impacts of climate change, region by region, the report also examines the efforts that are being made to help those affected adjust to more extreme weather and rising seas, and to manage the risks now and in the future.
Chris Field, who is co-chair of the working group (WGII) that produced the report, told the opening session of the ongoing IPCC meeting in Yokohama, Japan, that one of the things he likes most about the report "is that it combines cold, analytical realism with a careful look at a broad range of possible solutions".
"Truly, much of the material in the WGII report is as much about building a better world as it is about understanding serious problems," he said.
Indeed, the draft summary includes many examples - and a colourful chart - of adaptation measures, going far beyond building physical infrastructure such as sea walls and river embankments. Policies range from persuading farmers to plant more climate-resilient seeds, to weather and crop insurance, irrigation, access to credit, early warning systems, better medical services and land-use planning.
ADAPTATION ALONE CAN'T SAVE THE WORLD
Yet even with all the known ways of adapting to climate stresses, not enough is being done, the report will suggest, highlighting a significant "adaptation deficit" in both rich and poor countries.
The IPCC authors - numbering more than 300 scientists - also make a point of saying there will be limits to adaptation in the longer-term if temperatures continue to rise - even though it remains unclear when those limits will be reached and what they might be.
"The report acknowledges that adaptation can't overcome all climate change impacts, and especially at the higher levels of temperature increase, there are going to be some adaptation options that are just too expensive or resource-intensive and just don't make sense. Therefore we need a dual approach for both (climate change) mitigation and adaptation," explains Kelly Levin, a senior associate with WRI, underlining the need for the world to start reducing its greenhouse gas emissions right now.
McGray notes there is still much debate about the limits of adaptation. For example, when a family moves away from their regularly flooded home, is that part of adaptation, or a sign that it has failed?
In a report on climate threats to global food security, out earlier this week, Oxfam provides an interesting example. A successful irrigation project it set up in southeast Zimbabwe, benefiting 270 subsistence farming families, was badly affected by drought last year, leaving the dam feeding it without enough water. When the rains came they were so torrential that boulders smashed into the irrigation pipeline, cracking it.
"We are starting to see the limits to adaptation - even in our own programme - and at that point the implications for hunger are quite profound," Tim Gore, head of policy and research for Oxfam's GROW campaign on food justice, tells me.
McGray says the IPCC report will make a distinction between "the near term, where we really depend upon adaptation" and "the longer term where adaptation isn't going to succeed to the extent we would like to see unless we also have significant emissions reductions".
"It's not negative or positive - it's a realistic message," she adds.
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