On March 31, the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report. It is part of a larger report called the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) that has been coming out in stages. The first stage, Working Group I, was released in September 2013, and it concerned the science of climate change.
The second stage, Working Group II, describes the impacts of climate change. Its official title is Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. 309 lead authors from 70 countries worked on the report, with help from 436 contributing authors and 1729 expert and government reviewers. It has 2600 pages, 30 chapters and a Technical Summary. There is also a 44-page Summary for Policy Makers.
According to the report, climate change is happening now, and it is already affecting the global environment. 90% of the world's glaciers are shrinking. Related phenomena include melting snow packs in the western U.S., melting sea ice in Alaska that has already forced communities to relocate, and a decline in Arctic ice. Many areas, like north Africa and the Middle East, are becoming more arid. The percentage of the Earth's surface suffering drought has more than doubled since the 1970's.
According to the report, the greatest danger will be rising sea levels. As glaciers melt and flow into the words' oceans, the sea levels will rise, causing coastal flooding. Sea levels rose seven inches during the 20th century, and will rise even more during this century. By the end of the century, the floods could reduce global economic production by 10%, as the floods will devastate both cities and farmlands. In addition, the oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and ocean acidification has deleterious impacts on marine organisms, as the acid eats away the shells many have.
Climate change will also affect weather patterns. There has already been an increase in extreme events like heat waves, droughts floods, cyclones, and wildfires -- and such events will become increasingly common. There will also be changes in rainfall and snowfall. These changes will make it harder for farmers to grow their crops, as they need fairly predictable weather patterns to do so. Animals will also be affected, and many species will either move to new habitats seeking desirable environments or go extinct. Some of these will be animals that carry diseases. Mosquitoes, which carry malaria and other serious diseases, have already extended their range.
Climate change will affect society. Damage to agriculture will make it harder for people to grow or get food. Food prices will go up, again making it harder for poor people to get food, particularly if they live in cities. Climate change will also slow down economic growth, making it harder for communities or countries to reduce the poverty in their areas. Such effects could, in turn, lead to violent conflicts over resources. “Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change,” Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the intergovernmental panel said.
The report did find some bright spots, as a growing number of governments and countries are taking climate change seriously and are making plans to prepare for and adapt to climate disruptions. In addition, both scientists and economists agree that strategies for dealing with climate change must include both mitigation and adaptation.
The report mentions New York as an example of adaptation. The Public Service Commission ordered Consolidated Edison, the electric company serving New York City and the surrounding area, to upgrade its system to prevent future flood damage. In order to prevent the floods and blackouts caused by a storm like Hurricane Sandy, Con Ed will raise flood walls, bury equipment, and conduct a study to see if even more changes will have to be made. The project is expected to cost $1 billion dollars.
Unfortunately, so long as greenhouse gas emissions continue rising, climate change could worsen to the point that it will overwhelm efforts to adapt. Poor countries will be especially hard hit, as they do not have the means to make such attempts in the first place. The report cited a World Bank figure saying that poor countries will need $100 billion of aid per year from wealthy countries, who currently give them a few billion a year towards adapting to climate change.