Emergency Brakes Needed to Stop Climate Crash

TORONTO - In the end, governments accepted evidence from the world's top scientists that climate change impacts could be abrupt and irreversible, and that they require urgent action.

"The threat is real," said United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

"I have seen the impacts of climate change in Antarctica and the Amazon with my own eyes," Ban said in a press conference in Valencia, Spain, at Saturday's public unveiling of the Synthesis Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

"It is a very strong document. It sends a stark message that we face abrupt and irreversible impacts," said Hans Verolme, director of the climate change programme for the international environmental group WWF.

"The report shows that the window for action is closing. Policy-makers need to take action," Verolme told TierramAf(c)rica in an interview from Valencia Saturday.

The 24-page Synthesis Report and shorter Synthesis Summary for Policymakers summarise the scientific findings from the IPCC's 2,800-page, three-volume assessment of climate change released earlier in the year.

"The Synthesis Report sets out concrete and affordable ways to deal with (climate change)," noted Ban.

The report details various effects, including increased extreme weather and sea level rises of more than one metre by 2100, and what future global temperature increases may come, depending on how much more carbon dioxide (CO2 - the main greenhouse gas) ends up in the atmosphere.

Previously, the IPCC had suggested stabilising the climate by preventing CO2 concentrations from surpassing about 450 parts per million by 2050. Current CO2 levels are around 381 ppm.

Shockingly absent from the new report is the scientific assessment of the need to reduce emissions 25 to 40 percent by 2020 in order to achieve that stabilisation target.

At an informal IPCC meeting Aug. 31 in Vienna, representatives from industrialised countries agreed that greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced by 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Based on the dire warnings from scientists of the need to sharply curb emissions, even the United States and Canada "swallowed hard and accepted this", says Verolme.

Although Verolme thought this first-ever agreement on a reduction range for industrialised nations was mentioned in one of the report's many tables, TierramAf(c)rica could find no reference to it anywhere in the document.

It appears not to have survived the word-by-word examination by government representatives.

"There is no debate about the science. The debates are about the words," says Monirul Mirza, an environmental scientist at the University of Toronto and one of the three dozen authors of the draft of the Synthesis Report.

"We summarised the key findings of the main report," Mirza told TierramAf(c)rica from Valencia.

Confidential early drafts had previously been sent to every country and to representatives of civil society such as WWF for comment. After their review and revisions, the governments approved the text in Valencia.

"It is a very transparent process. Countries cannot play around with the scientific findings," he said.

But Verolme disagrees, saying that government representatives tend to water down the scientific findings in the summaries.

The summary of "The Physical Science Basis" report, released in February, failed to mention the increased incidence of potentially destructive hurricanes, the warming of the Pacific Ocean and the loss of glaciers in the European Alps, he said.

The negotiations were closed to the media and Mirza could not comment on what words the countries were arguing about. There will be no new science included because it is a summary. Furthermore, the IPCC cut-off for the incorporation of new scientific findings was a year ago, he said.

That means a number of recent scientific studies documenting the rapid melt of the Greenland ice sheet and the Arctic Ocean sea ice, increasing acidity of the oceans or the slowing ability of forests and seas to absorb CO2 are not included.

"Climate change is going faster than our worst-case scenarios of five or six years ago," said Verolme.

Meanwhile, the science in climate change is moving so quickly that it is nearly impossible to keep up. The WWF has asked the IPCC to issue special reports, such as on sea level increases, when there are new findings.

"The IPCC is a consensus process and tends to be cautious, leaving out the more alarmist scientific findings," Verolme said.

While that may make the IPCC less vulnerable to attack by critics, it may do the world a disservice by underestimating the potential risks.

Even the gloomiest of the IPCC predictions underestimate the severity of climate change, eminent British scientist James Lovelock told the Royal Society -- Britain's national academy of science -- in late October.

One of the reasons is that the IPCC does not take the influence and impacts of natural ecosystems into account, he said.

Biological systems are changing and the IPCC does not assess those very well, agrees Stephen Tonser, an ecologist at the University of Pittsburgh, in the north-eastern U.S. state of Pennsylvania.

The effects of climate change on biodiversity will be profound. The IPCC says almost one-third of the world's species will face extinction if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. Tonser says that prediction likely falls short of reality.

The rate of extinctions will almost certainly accelerate with changing conditions brought on by climate change. "Most species simply can't move fast enough," he said.

Scientists do not know what the full effects of this rapid decline in species would be, he said.

The IPS news agency reported on Nov. 6 that new research showed that when a forest loses too many unique species, it can reduce the total number of plants in that forest by half.

As a direct consequence, "half of the oxygen they produced is lost. Half of the water, food and other ecological services they provide are lost," stated the article, "How Many Species Are 'Enough'?"

"We are riding in an airplane with the bolts falling out while heading into a storm," Tonser said.

The IPCC has greatly underestimated the climate storm ahead, says Lovelock. He calculates that when all the earth systems are taken into account an atmospheric concentration of 500 ppm of CO2 will result in a six degree rise in global temperatures, not the two degrees Celsius the IPCC says is most likely.

"The IPCC's Synthesis Report must show that while it is already too late to prevent some of global warming's impacts, we do have the ability to stop the rot," says Stephan Singer, head of WWF's European climate and energy programme.

"Governments must wake up. They could be responsible for the next mass extinction of species if they don't act to stop carbon pollution now," said Singer

(*Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the TierramAf(c)rica network. TierramAf(c)rica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

(c) 2007 Inter Press Service

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