International Panel Outlines Strategies for Responding to Impacts of Climate Change

A new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assesses the current and future impacts of global warming and explores opportunities for proactively adapting to them.

The report, announced on April 6, concludes that the world's rivers, lakes, wildlife, glaciers, permafrost, coastal zones, disease carriers and many other elements of the natural and physical environment are already responding to the effects of humanity's greenhouse gas emissions.

Rising temperatures are accelerating the hydrological cycle and causing rivers and lakes to freeze later in the autumn and birds to migrate and nest earlier in the spring.

Scientists are increasingly confident that, as global warming continues, certain weather events and extremes will become more frequent, widespread or intense.

Over the coming decades, the Arctic, sub-Saharan Africa, small island states, low-lying coasts, natural ecosystems and water resources and agricultural production in certain regions will be at particular risk.

Dramatic sea-level rises and some other events have the potential to cause very large impacts, especially after the 21st century.

However, the IPCC also finds that early action to improve seasonal climate forecasts, food security, freshwater supplies, disaster and emergency response, famine early-warning systems and insurance coverage can minimize the damage from future climate change while generating many immediate practical benefits.

"Scientists owe much of their new understanding of how climate change will affect the planet to the greater number of field studies and data sets now available to them, as well as to improved consistency between observations and climate model results," said Michel Jarraud, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). "We need to strengthen our research and monitoring even further and gain more practical experience in how best to adapt to our new climate."

Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said, "The invoice for the future impact costs of climate change has been put on the table by the IPCC. It is not a bill that we would have to pay in full if the world decides now to make deep and decisive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions."

The report also emphasizes that adaptation -- in developed but especially vulnerable developing countries -- also is needed to cope with the climate change already underway. "'Climate proofing' infrastructure and agriculture to health care services and communities will require investment but equally intelligent planning so that it is central to decision-making rather than on the periphery," Steiner added.

The IPCC illustrates the potential for adaptation by describing activities being undertaken in various parts of the world to adapt to current climate change.

Examples include partial drainage of the Tsho Rolpa glacial lake in Nepal, changes in livelihood strategies in response to permafrost melt by the Inuit in Nunavut, Canada, and the increased use of artificial snow-making by the ski industry in Europe, Australia and North America.

Measures being taken in anticipation of future climate change include the consideration of sea-level rise in the design of infrastructure such as the Confederation Bridge in Canada and in coastal zone management in the United States and The Netherlands.

The "Summary for Policymakers for IPCC Working Group II" has been posted in English at The chapters in the full underlying report, "Climate Change 2007: Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability," will be posted as PDFs in the next several days and will then be published by Cambridge University Press.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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