Sunday, March 30, 2014

IPCC report finds world might be irreversibly changed

Tom Arup, Environment editor,  The Age
The Age, March 31, 2014 

New report and Summary for Policy Makers now available here -

Climate change is already being felt in all corners of the globe and some parts of the natural world may already be undergoing irreversible change, a major assessment by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found.

The report on the impact of climate change – the first of its kind in seven years – stresses that the likelihood climate change will cause severe and irreversible damage to the planet grows if greenhouse gas emissions continue is high and the planet warms significantly.

The report is the result of years of work by a team of 309 lead global researchers. It is the second part of the IPCC's fifth assessment of climate change and focuses on its impact and how the world might adapt.

A 48-page summary released on Monday says some threats from climate change are considerable at just one or two degrees warming above pre-industrial levels. The average temperature across the globe has risen 0.85 since 1880.

The threat becomes high to very high under four degrees warming. Risks under this scenario include severe and widespread damage to unique and threatened human and eco-systems, substantial species extinction and threats to global food security.

The report identifies the world's poor as the most likely to be most under stress as climate hazards multiply the pressures already faced. But the impact of current extreme weather events, such as bushfires and floods, show a lack of preparedness in all countries, regardless of the level of development.

Dr Chris Field, co-chair of the research team behind the report, said climate change was not something that would happen in the future.

"We look around the world and see widespread impacts of the climate changes that have already occurred. Many of these have real consequences," he said.

"Vulnerability, the susceptibility to be harmed by climate change, is really widespread in society... there are vulnerable people, vulnerable activities, distributed around the world."

The report says there is still uncertainty about the timing and severity of the impact of climate change. It pitches the challenge as needing to identify the risks and deciding how to manage them.

The summary identifies eight global risks that it considers high probability and irreversible.

They include death, injury and disrupted livelihoods due to storm surges, coastal flooding and sea-level rise in low-lying communities; the breakdown of critical service such as electricity, water supply and emergency services due to extreme weather; food insecurity due to warming, drought flooding and extreme rainfall, particularly in poorer countries.

The report finds Artic-sea ice and coral reefs are at very high risk under two degrees of warming beyond that observed in 1986 and 2005.
The risk of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, extreme rainfall and coastal flooding is already considered moderate and will become high if temperatures rise another degree above 1986 to 2005 levels.

The report notes governments and industry are already beginning to change their practices to help key sectors adapt to a changing climate. In Australasia, planning for sea-level rise and reduced water availability is common. But while sea-level rise planning has evolved considerably over the past 20 years, its implementation remains piecemeal.

It says there are a wide range of measures that can help the world adapt to climate change and would result in a more robust, resilient and secure planet.

The IPCC had significantly more scientific research at hand than for its previous assessment in 2007. The report says impact due to climate change already observed includes:

• Changes to rainfall patterns and melting snow that are altering the quantity and quality of water systems.
• Land and sea species shifting their geographical range, seasonal activities, migration patterns and interaction.
• More negative than positive impact on crops yields.
• A relatively small burden on human health compared to other stresses.
• Significant vulnerability to extreme climate events, such as bushfires and heatwaves for some ecosystems and many human systems.

The report also assesses research into the projected future impact of climate change. Findings are that:

• Land and freshwater species face rising risk of extinction during and beyond the 21st century.
• The fraction of people facing water scarcity and affected by river flooding will increase in the 21st century as warming rises.
• Major food crops – rice, wheat and maize – are projected to be affected under temperature increases of two degrees above the levels of late-last century – though some individual locations may benefit.
• Global economic losses are difficult to estimate, but an additional two degrees warming could lead to between 0.2 to 2 per cent loss of global income. Losses are considered more likely to be greater than this range than smaller.
• Ill-health is expected to increase in many regions, especially developing countries.
The report follows the release last year of the first report looking at the physical science of climate change. A third part looking at options to cut greenhouse gas emissions will be released in mid-April.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

New IPCC climate report predicts significant threats to Australia

Tom Arup Environment editor 
The Age, March 23, 2014 

Australia's multibillion-dollar mining, farming and tourism industries face significant threats as worsening global warming causes more dangerous and extreme weather, the world's leading climate science body will warn.

A final draft of a five-year assessment by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - seen by Fairfax Media - details a litany of global impacts from intensifying climate change including the displacement of hundreds of millions of people, reduced crop yields and the loss of trillions of dollars from the global economy.

The report is the second part of the IPCC's fifth major assessment and focuses on climate change's impacts and how the world might adapt. It will be finalised at a meeting in Japan next weekend before its release on March 31.

The final draft Australasia chapter also outlines significant local threats if human-caused climate change gets worse, in particular high confidence that fire seasons, particularly in southern Australia, will extend in high-risk areas.

There is also significant risk of increased damage and death from heatwaves resulting from more frequent extreme high temperatures. Flood risk too would be worse.

The draft says these new extremes imply Australia's mammoth mining industry is increasingly vulnerable without adaptation measures. The report points to significant loss of coal exports revenue of $5 billion to $9 billion when mines were flooded in 2011.

Tourism also faces some significant threats, the draft says. The Great Barrier Reef is expected to degrade under all climate change scenarios, reducing its attractiveness to visitors.

Australia's $1.8 billion ski industry is identified as most negatively affected, with little option for it to counteract threats.

For Australian farming a 4 per cent reduction in the gross value of beef, sheep and wool is expected with 3 degrees of warming above a 1980-99 baseline.

Dairy output is projected to decline in all regions, except in Tasmania.

Out of the major risks identified for Australia in the draft, the loss of montane ecosystems and changes in coral reefs, appear to be very difficult to avoid. The draft also finds modelling consistently indicated the range of many wildlife species will contract.

And there is high confidence climate change is already affecting Australia's oceans, with climate zones and species shifting hundreds of kilometres southwards.

Professor Jean Palutikof - a review editor of the assessment and director of Australia's National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility - said while adaptation measures were important, there were limits to what the world could do and it was important to cut global emissions to ensure these thresholds are not reached.

''I think it is quite black and white, there is a risk we will go beyond the limits of the natural environment and human society to adapt to the climate'' she said.

A spokesman for Environment Minister Greg Hunt said the government recognised the importance of adapting to the impacts of climate change, pointing to the refunding of the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, which it has asked to ''focus on putting practical adaptation information in the hands of decision-makers so we can build a stronger, more resilient Australia''.

The world is hungry and increasingly so. Demand for the three staple food crops - rice, wheat and maize - is expected to grow 14 per cent a decade to 2050.

Meeting that demand will be hard at the best of times. CSIRO's Dr Mark Howden says the food produced (yields) by most primary crops is presently growing by only about 1 per cent a decade.

Then there is climate change. The draft IPCC assessment finds with global warming average global crop yield will decline by up to 2 per cent a decade .

Dr Howden is a lead author of the food security chapter in the report. He says food crops will remain relatively stable with less than 1 degree of warming. But as temperatures rise above that they will feel the heat. And the more heat, the less crops will produce.

''Confidence that things will get more and more negative is stronger and stronger as we go out to higher temperatures,'' he says.

More extreme weather will also mean the amount of food produced will vary wildly year-on-year.

The draft findings of the fifth assessment differ from the IPCC's last report, which found crop losses in some areas would be offset by gains elsewhere. Five years on and more negative impacts are now being observed than positive.

Dr Howden says adaptation can improve yields by about 10 to 15 per cent above what they would otherwise have been - enough to feed a billion people. The draft says adaptation can be effective at about two degrees of warming, but at four degrees the gap between production and demand will become increasingly large in many regions, even with adaptation.

The work to be able to adapt food production to a hotter and more variable world must begin now, Dr Howden says. One example is the need to breed varieties that can handle the new climate, while to date we breed for historic conditions.

At the top of Australia's mountains the world is closing in. As the planet warms, snow is disappearing and the montane environment is receding. The animal and plant species that call it home, such as the mountain pygmy-possum, have a significant problem - their chance of extinction is growing.

Macquarie University biologist, Professor Lesley Hughes, says habitat contraction is one of the key challenges emerging as a result of climate change.

Professor Hughes is a lead author of the Australasian chapter. She says if warming intensifies over the coming decades the overall global picture for ecosystems, plants and animals is bleak. A leaked draft of the report concludes many species are already shifting their range, seasonal activities, migration patterns, and interactions.

''There are lots of species that have proved to be very sensitive to warming of even less than 1 degree,'' Professor Hughes says.

''In some cases species have moved several hundred kilometres to cooler areas towards the poles, particularly in the marine world, where there are less barriers to movement than on land.''

She says that at up to 2 degrees of warming, the main driver of extinction, will continue to be land-use change, but at any higher rate of warming, climate change will become the predominant factor.

Professor Hughes says most species cannot evolve at the same speed as the planet is changing, and there is little humans can do to help out.

Wars between great nations and millions of refugees driven from home by rising seas. These are the nightmare security scenarios envisaged under climate change.

In a sign of concern about global warming's security impact the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has for the first time assessed what problems may emerge. 

Professor Jon Barnett, a political geographer at Melbourne University, is a lead author of the security chapter. He says published evidence is clear that extreme weather will displace large numbers of people. But it also shows people tend to return once a threat subsides, meaning displacement is often temporary.

What about long-term deterioration, such as sea level rise? The draft report says by 2100, without help, hundreds of millions of people will be displaced by coastal flooding and land loss.

Will that mean great numbers of refugees fleeing to other countries? Professor Barnett says there is no clear evidence for that. And the real concern will be the poor and vulnerable who will have no escape means.

''Only some groups have the wherewithal to move as conditions deteriorate. Typically, it is the most vulnerable who are left behind and that is where the greatest social and humanitarian problem is,'' Professor Barnett says.

The IPCC assessment also looks at whether climate change will cause more armed conflicts, an area which he says is deeply contested. The draft assessment concludes climate change will indirectly increase the risk of conflict by exacerbating factors that cause violence, such as poverty and economic shocks.

While the link between climate change and war is not clear, it may shape security policy and heighten tensions between nations over factors such as shared water resources and fish stocks. But Professor Barnett says these can be managed peacefully with strong international institutions.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Climate change is putting world at risk of irreversible changes, scientists warn

AAAS makes rare policy intervention urging US to act swiftly to reduce carbon emissions and lower risks of climate catastrophe  

Suzanne Goldenberg  

The Guardian, Tuesday 18 March 2014

The world is at growing risk of "abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes" because of a warming climate, America's premier scientific society warned on Tuesday.

In a rare intervention into a policy debate, the American Association for the Advancement of Science urged Americans to act swiftly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – and lower the risks of leaving a climate catastrophe for future generations.

"As scientists, it is not our role to tell people what they should do," the AAAS said in a new report, What we know.

"But we consider it our responsibility as professionals to ensure, to the best of our ability, that people understand what we know: human-caused climate change is happening, we face risks of abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes, and responding now will lower the risks and costs of taking action."

The United Nations' climate science panel, the IPCC, will gather in Yokohama, Japan next week to release the second in a series of blockbuster reports, this time outlining how a changing climate is affecting rainfall and heat waves, sea level and the oceans, fisheries and food security.

But the AAAS scientists said they were releasing their own assessment ahead of time because they were concerned that Americans still failed to appreciate the gravity of climate change.

Despite "overwhelming evidence", the AAAS said Americans had failed to appreciate the seriousness of the risks posed by climate change, and had yet to mobilise at a pace and scale needed to avoid a climate catastrophe.

The scientists said they were hoping to persuade Americans to look at climate change as an issue of risk management. The society said it plans to send out scientists on speaking tours to try to begin a debate on managing those risks.

The report noted the climate is warming at almost unprecedented pace.

"The rate of climate change now may be as fast as any extended warming period over the past 65 million years, and it is projected to accelerate in the coming decades,"

An 8F rise – among the most likely scenarios could make once rare extreme weather events – 100-year floods, droughts and heat waves – almost annual occurrences, the scientists said.

Other sudden systemic changes could lie ahead – such as large scale collapse of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, collapse of part of the Gulf Stream, loss of the Amazon rain forest, die-off of coral reefs, and mass extinctions.

"There is a risk of abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes in the earth's climate system with massively disruptive impacts," the report said.

The risks of such catastrophes would only grow over time – unless there was action to cut emissions, the scientists said.

"The sooner we make a concerted effort to curtail the burning of fossil fuels as our primary energy source and releasing the C02 to the air, the lower our risk and cost will be."

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Climate action call as 'another angry summer' breaks 156 heat records

Climate Council says the summer was 'another example of climate change tearing through the record books'  

Oliver Milman

The Guardian, Monday 10 March 2014

The Climate Council report is available here -

More than 150 temperature records were broken in Australia during "another angry summer" that highlighted the need for deep reductions in greenhouse gases, a new report has said.

The analysis, by the Climate Council, found that Sydney experienced its driest summer in 27 years, while Melbourne sweltered through its hottest ever 24-hour period, averaging 35.5C. The Victorian capital also had four days in a row above 41C.

Elsewhere, Adelaide had a record of 11 days at 42C or hotter during the summer, while Perth had its second hottest summer on record.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given that 79% of Queensland is now considered to be in drought, the Climate Council findings showed it was the driest summer on record for 45 locations in the state.

In New South Wales, where more than half of the state is in the grip of drought, 38 locations had their driest ever summer.

The highest temperature recorded in the summer was 49.2C in Emu Creek, Western Australia. Overall, 156 temperature records were broken in the 90 days of summer.

Eight of the hottest summers on record have occurred in the past 15 years, the council's report showed. It states it is "virtually certain" that extreme hot weather will become even more frequent and severe in Australia in the coming decades.

Rising temperatures driven by the release of heat-trapping carbon dioxide place Australians at increased risk from extreme weather events, including heatwaves, drought and bushfires, the report stated.

The summer heat followed what was Australia's hottest ever year on record in 2013.

"The latest summer was an another example of climate change tearing through the record books," said the Climate Council's Tim Flannery. "It's not just about one summer but an overall trend to more extreme weather.

"Things are getting bad and if we want to stop them getting worse this is the critical decade for action. We need to cut the emission of greenhouse gases and we need to do it urgently."

Arctic melt speeding up

Climate News Network, 9 March 2014

By Tim Radford

See also - In the Arctic,  winter's might doesn't have much bite, NSIDC, March 3, 2014

It's long been established that Arctic ice is on the retreat but it's the pace of change that's surprising scientists: latest studies show the region is at its warmest for 40,000 years.

LONDON, 9 March - Ice in the Arctic continues to retreat. The season without ice is getting longer by an average of five days every 10 years, according to a new study in Geophysical Research Letters.  And in some regions of the Arctic, the autumn freeze is now up to 11 days later every decade.

This means that a greater proportion of the polar region for a longer timespan no longer reflects sunlight but absorbs it. This change in albedo – the scientist's term for a planet's reflectivity – means that open sea absorbs radiation, stays warmer, and freezes again ever later.

Warming accelerates
None of this is news: sea ice in the Arctic has been both retreating and thinning in volume for four decades. Researchers have tracked the retreat of the snow line to find tiny plants exposed that had been frozen over 40,000 years ago: the implication is that the Arctic is warmer now than it has been for 40 millennia.

This warming threatens the animals that depend for their existence on a stable cycle of seasons  and is accelerating at such a rate that the polar ocean could be entirely free of ice in late summer in the next four decades.

So Julienne Stroeve, of University College London and her colleagues have provided yet further confirmation of an increasing rate of change in the region in their latest study.

The scientists examined satellite imagery of the Arctic for the last 30 years, on 25 square kilometer grid, to work out the albedo of each square for every month they had data.

Their headline figure of five days is an average: in fact the pattern of freeze and thaw in the Arctic varies. In one region the melt season has been extended by 13 days, in another the melt season is actually getting shorter.

Energy increases
This increasing exposure to summer sunlight means that ever greater quantities of energy are being absorbed: several times the energy of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima hits every square kilometer of the open Arctic Ocean.

"The extent of sea ice in the Arctic has been declining for the last four decades," said Professor Stroeve, "and the timing of when melt begins and ends has a large impact on the amount of ice lost each summer.

With the Arctic region becoming more accessible for longer periods of time, there is a growing need for improved prediction of when the ice retreats and reforms in the water." - Climate News Network