Is it too late to prepare for climate change?

Elizabeth Kolbert writes: Late last week, a Web site that claims that there is no scientific consensus on global warming published a leaked draft report on the impacts of global warming. The leak was apparently intended to embarrass the authors of the report, which is the latest installment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. However, it seems mostly to have had the opposite effect: what the leaked document shows is just how dire the impacts are likely to be. The report was the lead story on the front page of Saturday’s Times, under the two-column headline “Climate Change Seen Posing Risk to Food Supplies.”

“Many of the ills of the modern world — starvation, poverty, flooding, heat waves, droughts, war and disease –are likely to worsen as the world warms from man-made climate change,” the Associated Press observed in its analysis of the report.

Technically, what got leaked was a summary of the second part of the I.P.C.C.’s Fifth Assessment Report. (Part one, released in Stockholm in September, focussed on the geophysics of climate change and asserted with virtual certainty that human activity “has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”) The I.P.C.C. doesn’t conduct any research of its own — its conclusions are based entirely on already-published scientific papers — so it could be argued that there was no real news in the latest document. The force of the report comes simply from assembling all the data in one place; the summary reads like a laundry list of the apocalypse — flood, drought, disease, starvation. Climate change, the group noted, will reduce yields of major crops by up to two per cent each decade for the remainder of this century. (One of the reasons for this is that heat waves, which will become more common as the world warms, depress the yields of staple crops like corn.)

Since the global population is projected to grow throughout the century — to eight billion by 2025, nine billion by 2050, and almost eleven billion by 2100 — this is obviously rather bad news. At the same time, the incidence of flooding, drought, and general weather-related mayhem will increase, and already-vulnerable populations will be pushed closer to the edge, or, quite possibly, over it. Conflict is bound to ensue. Climate change “will increasingly shape national security policies,” the report warns.

Meanwhile, as bad as things look for humans, the prognosis for non-humans is, in many ways, worse. [Continue reading…]

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