New climate report warns time is running out

Feature story - 6 April, 2007
The new report was agreed after almost a week of negotiations, at the end of a tense 24-hour marathon session which became increasingly political. The second of a series of four to be released throughout 2007, this report documents the widespread effects that rising temperatures are already having on ecosystems and human activities and assesses the changes projected from human induced climate change over the next century.

Rising global temperatures and climate change will lead to more of the kind of droughts that have struck Thailand, Cambodia,Vietnam and Indonesia in recent memory. Severe water shortage and damage to agriculture has affected millions.

"This is a glimpse into an apocalyptic future. The earth will be transformed by human induced climate change, unless action is taken soon and fast," said Stephanie Tunmore, Greenpeace International Climate and Energy Campaigner. "What this report shows is that we are simply running out of time."

Some of the reports key findings:

  • It is likely that climate change will induce mass extinction of species within 60-70 years. We have already seen the climate linked extinction of some frog species but this is just the tip of the iceberg.  The scale of risk is larger than most of the five major extinction events that have occurred in the earth's history.
  • Over the next decades the number of people at risk of water scarcity is likely to rise from tens of millions to billions. Steadily decreasing water availability is projected for India and other parts of South Asia and Africa: whilst the poorest parts of the world are going to the hardest hit, wealthy countries such as Australia and nations in Southern Europe are also on the front line.
  • Reductions in food production capacity in the poorest parts of the world are projected, bringing more hunger and misery and undermining achievement of the millennium development goals.  Within a few decades it is likely that we will see climate change induced wheat, maize and rice production drops in India and China.
  • Increased drought and water scarcity are likely to lead to growing problems of hunger and human dislocation in Africa in coming decades.
  • The loss of glaciers in Asia, Latin America and Europe are set to cause major water supply problems for a large fraction of the world's population, as well as a massive increase in glacial lake outburst floods and other risks for those living in the glaciated mountains.
  • Huge numbers of people will be at risk due to sea level rise, storm surge and river flooding in the Asian Megadeltas such as the Ganges-Brahmaputra (Bangladesh) and the Zhujiang (Pearl River).
  • Warming of more than another degree could commit the world to multi-metre sea level rise over several centuries from the partial or total loss of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets.  Huge coastal dislocation would result and could be triggered by emissions made in the next several decades.

Politicians watering down the threat?

In a late night manoeuvre, after nearly 22 hours of negotiations Saudi Arabia, China and Russia gutted a key figure in the IPCC report on impacts, removing a graph of the warming effects of fossil fuel emissions from a key summary table.  The move was described in an emotional statement to the Plenary by a senior climate scientist as an "act of scientific vandalism".  Without the warming graph the table of impacts lacks a context to show when the projected impacts would occur.

In another development China and Saudi Arabia forced the weakening of a key finding on the effects of recent warming on natural systems.

The original finding was that:

Based on observational evidence from all continents and most oceans, there is [very] high confidence that many natural systems, are being affected by regional climate changes, particularly temperature increases.

China and Saudi Arabia insisted in the removal of "very" although the confidence in the findings was more than 99.9 percent.  The watered down conclusion was adopted over the top of fundamental scientific objections by the scientists who authored the IPCC report.

We believe that this was unprecedented in the history of the IPCC since 1988, and was an ugly and damaging development. To our knowledge there have been no similar acts in the history of the IPCC.

It's not too late

Greenpeace is calling for global emissions to peak by 2020 and fall rapidly thereafter ensuring at least a 50 percent reduction globally from 1990 levels by the year 2050, and eliminate fossil fuel emissions before the end of the 21st century.

"We still have options," said Tunmore. "There is still time for an energy revolution that will dramatically transform our energy system and create a carbon free economy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions to a level that keeps the global average temperature increase well below 2 degrees C, avoiding the most catastrophic impacts."

"The one option that is clearly no longer open to us after this report is to continue to sit on our hands and do nothing."

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