March 19, 2007

New climate change report offers roadmap for prevention, adaptation

A new report by an international panel of scientific experts underlines once more the urgency and seriousness of the need to respond to the threats and challenges posed by climate change. Confronting Climate Change: Avoiding the Unmanageable and Managing the Unavoidable presents a roadmap for preventing unmanageable climate changes and adapting to the degree of change that can no longer be avoided.

The report, two years in preparation, was released by United Nations Foundation and Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society. It is intended to provide input at the forthcoming meeting of the UN's Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). This year's 15th Session of the CSD is reviewing national and international efforts on energy and climate change.

The panel was co-chaired by Dr Peter Raven, a biodiversity expert and director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and Dr Rosina Bierbaum, dean of the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and the Environment. The expert team was invited by the UN's Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Secretariat to the CSD, to make recommendations on key mitigation and adaptation needs.

"Two starkly different futures diverge from this time forward," the report cautions. "Society's current path leads to increasingly serious climate change impacts...The other path...will reduce dangerous emissions, create economic opportunity, help to reduce global poverty, reduce degradation and carbon emissions from ecosystems, and contribute to sustainability. Humanity must act collectively and urgently to change course through leadership at all levels of society. There is no more time for delay."

Dr Raven stated, "Our report makes clear that the challenge before us is to reduce the risk of climate change resulting in intolerable global impacts. Our recommendations are designed to help the international community get on a path to stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and managing the impacts of climate change.

"Unlike many reports from scientists," he continued, "this report gives very clear recommendations for what the international community and nations themselves must do to mitigate and adapt to climate change. These steps will contribute to achievement of the UN's Millennium Development Goals; failing to do so will make those goals much harder, if not impossible to reach."

Panel co-chair Dr Bierbaum added that, "We imperil our children's and grandchildren's future if we fail to improve society's capacity to adapt to a changing climate. We can manage water better, bolster disaster preparedness, increase surveillance for emerging diseases, make cities more resilient, move vulnerable populations and prepare for environmental refugees, design more drought-tolerant crops, use natural resources more sustainably, and enhance local capacity to cope with a suite of expected changes."

"It is still possible to avoid an unmanageable degree of climate change, but the time for action is now," said John Holdren, director of the Woods Hole Research Center, chairman of the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and another of the report's co-ordinating lead authors.

"The global average surface temperature has already risen about 0.8*C above pre-industrial levels and is projected to rise another 2-4*C by 2100 if CO2 emissions and concentrations grow according to mid-range projections. Prudence dictates limiting the average temperature increase to no more than 2-2.5*C above the pre-industrial level, and our report offers clear recommendations for achieving that goal," he said.

The report reviews the science of climate change and explains the importance of avoiding the risk of major impacts of climate change. It presents options for mitigation and outlines preparatory measures that can be taken to adapt to anticipated climate change.

Some of the report's key findings follow.

- Exceeding global average temperature increases above 2-2.5*C above the 1750 pre-industrial level would entail "sharply increasing risk of intolerable impacts."

- To avoid exceeding the 2-2.5* C limit, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) need to be stabilized at the equivalent of no more than 450-500 ppm of CO2 (compared to about 380 ppm CO2-equivalent today). That in turn requires that global CO2 emissions peak at not much above their current level by 2015 to 2020 at the latest, and decline to about one-third of that value by 2100.

- A two-pronged strategy is needed: avoid the unmanageable (mitigation) and manage the unavoidable (adaptation).

*The technology exists to seize significant opportunities around the globe to reduce emissions and provide other economic, environmental and social benefits, including meeting the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals. To do so, policy makers must immediately act by:

- Improving efficiency in the transportation sector through measures such as vehicle efficiency standards, fuel taxes, and registration fees/rebates that favor purchase of efficient and alternative fuel vehicles.

- Improving design and efficiency of commercial and residential buildings through building codes, standards for equipment and appliances, incentives for property developers and landlords to build and manage properties efficiently, and financing for energy-efficiency investments.

- Expanding the use of biofuels through energy portfolio standards and incentives to growers and consumers.

- Designing and deploying only the types of coal power plants that can be affordably retrofitted to capture and sequester CO2, starting immediately.

*Climate change and its impacts are already being experienced, and this will continue even if mitigation efforts are successful. Societies must do more to adapt to continuing and unavoidable changes in the Earth's climate system by:

- Improving preparedness/response strategies and management of natural resources to cope with future climatic conditions that will be fundamentally different than those experienced over the last 100 years.

- Addressing the adaptation needs of the poorest and most vulnerable nations, which will bear the brunt of climate change impacts.

- Planning and building climate resilient cities.

- Strengthening international, national, and regional institutions to cope with weather-related disasters and an increasing number of climate change refugees.

*The international community, through the UN and related multilateral institutions, can play a crucial role in advancing action to manage the unavoidable and avoid the unmanageable by:

- Helping developing countries and countries with economies in transition to finance and deploy energy efficient and new energy technologies.

- Accelerating negotiations to develop a new international framework for addressing climate change and sustainable development.

- Educating all about the opportunities to adopt mitigation and adaptation measures.

The full report may be viewed on-line at

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), in its role as Secretariat to the CSD, invited Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society, to convene an international panel of scientific experts to prepare a report outlining the best measures for mitigating and adapting to global warming for submission to the CSD.

To carry out this task, the Scientific Expert Group on Climate Change and Sustainable Development (SEG) was formed. The panel, made up of 18 distinguished international scientists, was asked to consider innovative approaches for mitigating and/or adapting to projected climate changes, and to anticipate the relationship of response measures to sustainable development.

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