If you think of
climate change as a hazard for some far-off polar bears years from now,
you’re mistaken. That’s the message from top climate scientists gathering in
Japan this week to assess the impact of global warming.
In fact, they will
say, the dangers of a warming Earth are immediate and very human.
“The polar bear is
us,” says Patricia Romero Lankao of the federally financed National Center
for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., referring to the first species
to be listed as threatened by global warming due to melting sea ice.
She will be among
the more than 60 scientists in Japan to finish writing a massive and
authoritative report on the impacts of global warming. With representatives
from about 100 governments at this week’s meeting of the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change, they’ll wrap up a summary that tells world leaders
how bad the problem is.
The key message
from leaked drafts and interviews with the authors and other scientists: The
big risks and overall effects of global warming are far more immediate and
local than scientists once thought. It’s not just about melting ice,
threatened animals and plants. It’s about the human problems of hunger,
disease, drought, flooding, refugees and war, becoming worse.
The report says
scientists have already observed many changes from warming, such as an
increase in heat waves in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Severe
floods, such as the one that displaced 90,000 people in Mozambique in 2008,
are now more common in Africa and Australia. Europe and North America are
getting more intense downpours that can be damaging. Melting ice in the
Arctic is not only affecting the polar bear, but already changing the
culture and livelihoods of indigenous people in northern Canada.
Past panel reports
have been ignored because global warming’s effects seemed too distant in
time and location, says Pennsylvania State University scientist Michael
This report finds
“It’s not far-off in the future and it’s not exotic creatures - it’s us and
now,” says Mann, who didn’t work on this latest report.
The United Nations
established the climate change panel in 1988 and its work is done by three
groups. One looks at the science behind global warming. The group meeting in
Japan beginning Tuesday studies its impacts. And a third looks at ways to
Its reports have
reiterated what nearly every major scientific organization has said: The
burning of coal, oil and gas is producing an increasing amount of
heat-trapping greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. Those gases change
Earth’s climate, bringing warmer temperatures and more extreme weather, and
the problem is worsening.
The panel won the
Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, months after it issued its last report.
Since then, the
impact group has been reviewing the latest research and writing 30 chapters
on warming’s effects and regional impacts. Those chapters haven’t been
officially released but were posted on a skeptical website.
The key message can
be summed up in one word that the overall report uses more than 5,000 times:
Already the effects
of global warming are “widespread and consequential,” says one part of the
larger report, noting that science has compiled more evidence and done much
more research since the last report in 2007.
If climate change
continues, the panel’s larger report predicts these harms:
- VIOLENCE: For the
first time, the panel is emphasizing the nuanced link between conflict and
warming temperatures. Participating scientists say warming won’t cause wars,
but it will add a destabilizing factor that will make existing threats
- FOOD: Global food
prices will rise between 3 and 84 percent by 2050 because of warmer
temperatures and changes in rain patterns. Hotspots of hunger may emerge in
- WATER: About
one-third of the world’s population will see groundwater supplies drop by
more than 10 percent by 2080, when compared with 1980 levels. For every
degree of warming, more of the world will have significantly less water
- HEALTH: Major
increases in health problems are likely, with more illnesses and injury from
heat waves and fires and more food and water-borne diseases. But the report
also notes that warming’s effects on health is relatively small compared
with other problems, like poverty.
- WEALTH: Many of
the poor will get poorer. Economic growth and poverty reduction will slow
down. If temperatures rise high enough, the world’s overall income may start
to go down, by as much as 2 percent, but that’s difficult to forecast.
According to the
report, risks from warming-related extreme weather, now at a moderate level,
are likely to get worse with just a bit more warming. While it doesn’t say
climate change caused the events, the report cites droughts in northern
Mexico and the south-central United States, and hurricanes such as 2012’s
Sandy, as illustrations of how vulnerable people are to weather extremes. It
does say the deadly European heat wave in 2003 was made more likely because
of global warming.
University climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, who was not part of this
report team, says the important nuance is how climate change interacts with
other human problems: “It’s interacting and exacerbating problems we already
Colorado science policy professor Roger Pielke Jr., a past critic of the
panel’s impact reports, said after reading the draft summary, “it’s a lot of
important work ... They made vast improvements to the quality of their
University of Alabama Huntsville professor John Christy, accepts man-made
global warming but thinks its risks are overblown when compared with
something like poverty. Climate change is not among the developing world’s
main problems, he says.
scientists say Christy is misguided. Earlier this month, the world’s largest
scientific organization, the American Association for the Advancement of
Science, published a new fact sheet on global warming.
It said: “Climate
change is already happening. More heat waves, greater sea level rise and
other changes with consequences for human health, natural ecosystems and
agriculture are already occurring in the United States and worldwide. These
problems are very likely to become worse over the next 10 to 20 years and
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: