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March 31, 2014

The Risks of Climate Disruption


When we imagine what the future will look like in books and movies, we see flying cars, teleportation, and computer superintelligence. But what if in reality our future instead involves food shortages, extreme weather, and sea level rise?

If we continue on our current climate disruption path, scientists say that's exactly what will happen.

Today, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)'s Working Group II released a report that examines the impacts climate change has on our current and future environment, where we are most vulnerable, and the adaptation that must take place to deal with a changing climate.

"Managing the risks of climate change involves adaptation and mitigation decisions with implications for future generations, economies, and environments," the IPCC summary states.

What they found is that climate disruption is already occurring on every continent and in every ocean, and it disproportionately affects some communities. They also found that while adaptation can reduce the impacts of climate change, "greater rates and magnitude of climate change increase the likelihood of exceeding adaptation limits."

"Observed impacts of climate change have already affected agriculture, human health, ecosystems on land and in the oceans, water supplies, and some people's livelihoods," the IPCC press release states. "The striking feature of observed impacts is that they are occurring from the tropics to the poles, from small islands to large continents, and from the wealthiest countries to the poorest."

Areas around the globe are experiencing phenomena such as extreme hurricanes, severe drought, and exceptionally hot and cold weather. One of the most drastically affected locations is the Arctic. The sea ice has already reached its maximum extent and is beginning to shrink at an alarming rate. If this trend continues, the Arctic conditions will continue to be warmer than average, causing potentially irreparable damage to the planet.

Where the differences lie is in the resilience of the areas after an extreme weather event. Poorer communities and individuals who directly rely on the environment for housing or income are frequently ill-prepared for extreme weather events and unable to recover once they're over.

"Climate change often interacts with other stresses to increase risk," said Chris Field, co-chair of Working Group II.

Scientists recognize that working to help these communities cope with climate disruption is critically important for their survival. But it is only one small faction of the solution.

What scientists are looking at now is how the entire world will be able to handle continued climate disruption in the future and how to prepare for that future.

"The world, in many cases, is ill-prepared for risks from a changing climate," the IPCC press release states.

Scientists know that climate change adaptation is a major component to ensuring our ability to avoid frequent and widespread catastrophes in the future.

"Part of the reason adaptation is so important is that the world faces a host of risks from climate  change already baked into the climate system, due to past emissions and existing infrastructure," said Vicente Barros, co-chair of Working Group II, in the IPCC press release.

Without global adaptation to climate disruption, we can expect the next century to be "hotter, drier and hungrier."

"Maladaptation can increase the vulnerability or exposure of the target group in the future, or the vulnerability of other people, places, or sectors," the IPCC summary states.

But while some may tout adaptation as a "cure-all", it is not without limitations that may hinder its effectiveness. Limitations that are directly proportionate to accelerating climate change and increasing global emissions.

"Limits to adaptation emerge from the interaction among climate change and biophysical and/or socioeconomic constraints," the IPCC summary continues. "Opportunities to take advantage of positive synergies between adaptation and mitigation may decrease with time, particularly if limits to adaptation are exceeded. In some parts of the world, insufficient responses to emerging impacts are already eroding the basis for sustainable development."

So, as the planet continues to warm, adaptation becomes increasingly difficult. But "reducing climate change can also reduce the scale of adaptation that might be required," the IPCC summary states.

It's now time for the world's governments to do just that. We need our leaders to take action on this information and move away from dirty fossil fuels and continue to invest in clean energy sources like wind and solar. There are countless ways to start, beginning with the U.S. government rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline and putting a moratorium on leasing for oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

The opportunities are endless, but action needs to be taken now. Only then can we protect the environment and the economy for generations to come.

The future may be unclear, but one thing is certain. Science has spoken: it's time to act and adapt.

-- John Coequyt, Director of the Sierra Club's International Climate Program


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