The blunt and alarming final report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released here by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, may well underplay the problem of climate change, many experts and even the report’s authors admit.
The report describes the evidence for human-induced climate change as “unequivocal.” The rise in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere thus far will result in an average rise in sea levels of up to 4.6 feet, or 1.4 meters, it concluded.
“Slowing – and reversing – these threats is the defining challenge of our age,” Ban said upon the report’s release Saturday.
Ban said he had just completed a whirlwind tour of some climate change hot spots, which he called as “frightening as a science-fiction movie.”
He described ice sheets breaking up in Antarctica, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, and children in Chile having to wear protective clothing because an ozone hole was letting in so much ultraviolet radiation.
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The panel’s fourth and final report summarized and integrated the most significant findings of three sections of the panel’s exhaustive climate-science review that were released from January through April, to create an official “pocket guide” to climate change for policy makers who must now decide how the world will respond.
The first covered climate trends; the second, the world’s ability to adapt to a warming planet; the third, strategies for reducing carbon emissions. With their mission now concluded, the hundreds of IPCC scientists spoke more freely than they had previously.
“The sense of urgency when you put these pieces together is new and striking,” said Martin Parry, a British climate expert who was co-chairman of the delegation that wrote the second report.
This report’s summary was the first to acknowledge that the melting of the Greenland ice sheet could result in a substantive sea level rise over centuries rather than millennia.
“Many of my colleagues would consider that kind of melt a catastrophe” so rapid that mankind would not be able to adapt, said Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton University who contributed to the IPCC.
Delegations from hundreds of nations will be meeting in Bali, Indonesia in two weeks to start hammering out a global climate agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, the current climate change treaty. The first phase of the Kyoto Treaty expires in 2012.
“It’s extremely clear and is very explicit that the cost of inaction will be huge compared to the cost of action,” said Jeffrey Sachs, head of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “We can’t afford to wait for some perfect accord to replace Kyoto, for some grand agreement. We can’t afford to spend years bickering about it. We need to start acting now.”
He said that delegates in Bali should take action immediately where they do agree, for example, by public financing for demonstration projects on new technologies like “carbon capture,” a “promising but not proved” system that pumps emissions underground instead of releasing them into the sky. He said the energy ministers should start a global fund to help poor countries avoid deforestation, which causes emissions to increase because growing plants absorb carbon in the atmosphere.
Although the scientific data is not new, this was the first time it had been looked at together in its entirety, leading the scientists to new emphasis and more sweeping conclusions.
But even as the IPCC was working toward its conclusions over the past several years, a steady stream of even more alarming data has come in.
“The IPCC is a five-year process and the IPCC is struggling to keep up with the data – we are all being inundated with new evidence and new science,” said Hans Verolme, director of the Global Climate Change Program at the conservation organization WWF.
“And the new science is saying: ‘You thought it was bad? No it’s worse.’ ”
The IPCC chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, an engineer and economist from India, acknowledged the new trajectory. “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late,” Pachauri said. “What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”
He said that since the IPCC began work on its current report five years ago, scientists have recorded “much stronger trends in climate change,” like a recent melting of polar ice that had not been predicted. “That means you better start with intervention much earlier.”
“If you look at the scientific knowledge things do seem to be getting progressively worse,” Pachauri said later in an interview. “So you’d better start with the interventions even earlier. Now.” IHT