IPCC Says Essential Actions Needed to Reduce Risks of Changing Climate Extremes

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) approved on Friday (18 Nov 2011) a report on preparing for weather and climate extremes. The report’s summary warns that a changing climate “can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events” and says that actions ranging “from incremental steps to transformational change are essential for reducing risk from climate extremes.”

The U.S. this year has experienced a record fourteen weather-related disasters each in excess of a billion dollars – and many more disasters of lesser magnitudes (see 2011: Fourteen Billion-Dollar Weather Disasters, Most in U.S. history, WunderBlog, 4 November 2011). Yet the U.S. has no national climate change preparedness strategy; and Federal efforts to address the rising risks have been undermined through budget cuts and other means. Though seriously constrained by the lack of strong and unified leadership in Washington, communities and others around the country nevertheless are taking commonsense actions to address the emerging impacts of increasingly disruptive climate extremes.

The report punctuates a recent series of extreme climate events across the planet. See 2010 - 2011: Earth's most extreme weather since 1816? (24 June 2011) by Jeff Masters, Director of Meteorology at the WeatherUnderground; Current Extreme Weather and Climate Change[PDF] (7 Sep 2011), by Climate Communications; and the excellent segment below from NBC Nightly News.

 

Below:

IPCC: Actions are Essential to Manage Risks of Changing Climate Extremes

The Special Report for Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX) was approved by the IPCC yesterday. The report’s Summary for Policymakers was publicly released, but the full report will not be released until early 2012. The report indicates that already changes in the frequency and/or severity of some extremes have been observed. 

For the balance of the 21st century, the IPCC’s concludes:

  • “Models project substantial warming in temperature extremes by the end of the 21st century.”
  • “It is likely that the frequency of heavy precipitation or the proportion of total rainfall from heavy falls will increase in the 21st century over many areas of the globe.”
  • “Average tropical cyclone maximum wind speed is likely to increase, although increases may not occur in all ocean basins.”
  • “There is medium confidence that droughts will intensify in the 21st century in some seasons and areas, due to reduced precipitation and/or increased evapotranspiration.”
  • It is very likely that mean sea level rise will contribute to upward trends in extreme coastal high water levels in the future.”

The IPCC identified “low-regrets measures” as starting points in responding to the threat of future extremes, saying that such measures “provide benefits under current climate and a range of future climate change scenarios.” It adds:

“Many of these low-regrets strategies produce co-benefits, help address other development goals, such as improvements in livelihoods, human well-being, and biodiversity conservation, and help minimize the scope for maladaptation…Potential low-regrets measures include early warning systems; risk communication between decision makers and local citizens; sustainable land management, including land use planning; and ecosystem management and restoration. Other low-regrets measures include improvements to health surveillance, water supply, sanitation, and irrigation and drainage systems; climate proofing of infrastructure; development and enforcement of building codes; and better education and awareness.”

IPCC Conclusions Echo Earlier Findings, Yet U.S. Remains Dangerously Unprepared

In 2008, the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) covered some of the same issues in Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate. Regions of Focus: North America, Hawaii, Caribbean, and U.S. Pacific Islands (see also 4-page highlights). It found that “[m]any extremes and their associated impacts are now changing,” and that as the planet continues to warm:

“[H]heat waves and heavy downpours are very likely to further increase in frequency and intensity. Substantial areas of North America are likely to have more frequent droughts of greater severity. Hurricane wind speeds, rainfall intensity, and storm surge levels are likely to increase. The strongest cold season storms are likely to become more frequent, with stronger winds and more extreme wave heights.”

 

Above:In the U.S., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maintains a Climate Extremes Index that shows national and regional trends in weather extremes. For some extremes and regions, the trends are dramatic, particularly in recent decades. The figure above shows the trend for 1-day precipitation extremes in the Northeast during the colder time of year (October through March). For more on the extremes that have afflicted the U.S., see the regional fact sheets at Climate Central’s page on  Extreme Weather and Climate Change.

The USGCRP assessment was followed in 2010 by the America’s Climate Choices series of reports from the National Academies of Sciences (NAS), including Adapting to the Impacts of Future Climate Change (see National Research Council Reaffirms Climate Change Science; Cites Urgent Need to Reduce Emissions and Prepare for Impacts, WWF Climate Blog, 19 May 2010). The NAS  report said that “extreme weather events, including heat waves, floods, droughts, windstorms, and wildfires, will likely be particularly challenging for communities and sectors to adapt to.” The panel argued that "[m]any current and future climate change impacts require immediate actions to improve the ability of the nation to adapt." The report continued:

"It is the judgment of this panel that anticipatory climate change adaptation [i.e. preparedness] is a highly desirable risk management strategy for the United States. Such a strategy offers potentials to reduce costs of current and future climate change impacts, not only by realizing and supporting adaptation capacities across different levels of government, different sectors of the economy, and different populations and environments, but also by providing resources, coordination, and assistance in assuring that a wide range of distributed actions are mutually supportive."

Despite these and many other scientific assessments spanning several decades, the U.S. has no national strategy to address climate change – either to slow it by curbing emissions or to prepare for the impacts. As the Washington Post said in an editorial (A Bad Month for Climate-Change Skeptics,18 November 2011):

“The U.S. debate on global warming remains fancifully divorced from the scientific discussion. President Obama hardly ever mentions climate change. Republicans’ behavior is much more embarrassing: GOP presidential candidates often dismiss the warnings of experts in favor of conspiracy-drenched denial. The debate should no longer be about whether the world is warming or whether there is reason to act. It must be about how to respond.” (emphasis added)

See also our previous postings, White House Reports on Climate Change Adaptation, as Communities Face Rising Impacts Without National Strategy (1 November 2011), As the Costs of Extreme Weather Rise, Americans Cannot Afford Denial (9 Sep 2011), House drying up funding for weather preparedness (12 Aug 2011) and Dangerously Unprepared: Congressional Budget Cuts are Leaving Americans Vulnerable to Climate Extremes (21 July 2011).

Local and State Governments, and Others Take the Initiative Despite National Leadership Void

Though undermined by the lack of strong and unified leadership in Washington, communities and others around the country nevertheless are taking commonsense actions to address the emerging impacts of increasingly disruptive climate extremes. 

"We are beginning to see action in industry and state and local governments,” said William K. Reilly, Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (1989-1992) under President George H.W. Bush. Speaking earlier this month, Reilly cited Chicago as a leader among cities that are both curbing their greenhouse gases and preparing for the impacts of climate change (see Former EPA Administrator William K. Reilly: On Climate Change, Cities May "Save Us From the Ideological Gridlock in Washington," WWF Climate Change Blog, 11 November 2011)."This is promising, this is progress. This is how practical leaders do what they can while the country and the world wait for the United States government to make carbon reduction and climate mitigation a priority."

 “Cities and counties are increasingly engaged in preparing for climate change,” said Brian Holland of ICLEI last  week during a teleconference organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).  “Despite some real challenges in identifying resources to do climate adaptation, we expect to see continued growth in the number of communities attempting to build resilience to climate change and extreme weather.” See the UCS press release, 2011 Breaks Records for Extreme Weather Damage (14 November 2011); and backgrounder, Year of Extremes Underscores Need for Better Preparedness, Emissions Reductions (November 2011). 

In a news conference on 18 November hosted by Ceres, Kevin Parker, global head of Deutsche Asset Management, said that the IPCC SREX report “is further confirmation for investors not just of the reality of climate change but of the urgent need to hedge against the growing risk of devastating climate events in many parts of the world.” Dan Probst, chairman of energy and sustainable services at Jones Lang LaSalle, a real estate services firm, said that “more than ever before, weather events and other climate-related factors are beginning to impact real estate location and design decisions." (see Ceres’ press release, IPCC Report Confirms What Businesses Already Know: Extreme Weather & Climate Affect Investors, Insurance, Agriculture, Other Industries).

Some businesses are starting to organize around preparedness issues. Oxfam and a group of companies on 28 October 2011 announced formation of the Partnership for Resilience and Environmental Preparedness (PREP). According to a press release from Oxfam (Key companies launch partnership on climate resilience, 28 October 2011), the initiative will “promote responsible business practices and strong policies and programs that help businesses and vulnerable communities prepare for and respond to climate change. PREP signals a growing recognition among companies that the risks communities on the front lines of climate change face are also business risks.”

Investing in smart adaptation solutions is a major step towards building a climate resilient society,” said Mark Way, Senior Vice President for Sustainability and Political Risk Management at Swiss Re, one of the partners in the initiative. 

Online Resources

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

WWF Climate Change Blog, recent related stories:

Union of Concerned Scientists:

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC): 

Climate Central:

Jeff Masters:

Climate Variability and Climate Change: The New Climate Dice. By J. Hansen, M. Sato, R. Ruedy, 10 November 2011.

CERES:

NOAA:

A bad month for climate-change skeptics.  Editorial (19 November 2011), Washington Post.

The IPCC report on extreme climate and weather events.  RealClimate.org, 19 November 2011.

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