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Climate change and the crucial next steps

UTSC PhD student Thea Dickinson is a contributing author on two chapters of the recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

This week the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new report highlighting the risks and closing window of opportunity to address the effects of global climate change.  

UTSC PhD student Thea Dickinson is a contributing author on two chapters of the report. She spoke with writer Don Campbell about some of the report’s key findings and recommendations.
 


A clear message in the report is that we must adapt immediately if we want to lessen the effects of global warming; if we don’t, there will be dire consequences. Is the risk of inaction too great to ignore?

Definitely.  We are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, not just in developing countries, but in Canada.  Rich developed nations are not immune.  Northern communities, coastal zones and dense urban areas like Toronto are increasingly vulnerable.  Our aging infrastructure and our delay in creating effective policies further increase the risk. If we continue to do nothing we’ll experience greater economic loss, the loss of ecosystems, livelihoods and even lives. 

The report tells us that climate change is inevitable and unavoidable, so we have to find ways to cope effectively.  What can we do?

Responding to climate change isn’t about coping.  It’s about adapting so we can continue to thrive. We want to improve our quality of life, not just sustain it.

There are many things we can do: engineering flood levees, improving sewer and transportation infrastructure, for example. We can do more to diversify crops, develop new species of crops and increase our urban forest cover. We need to take proactive steps like implementing early warning systems and developing disaster plans. More importantly, national governments should develop adaptation plans and climate change should be part of regional and municipal planning.

What are some global risks associated with climate change?

The report dedicates an entire chapter to food security. Our food system is completely dependent on day-to-day weather patterns and changes in climate, so extreme events like drought or flooding can drastically decrease crops, even wipe them out. Scientists say Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest typhoon on record, is directly linked to climate change. 

Subtle changes and events like frost, extreme high temperature and precipitation differences will require shifts in our growing seasons. What was once predictable is becoming harder and harder to predict.  This has a direct impact on the availability and price of food.  We’ve probably all seen stories on the local news about how the ongoing drought in California is expected to impact food prices in Canada. 

Sea levels have also been rising faster than predicted in previous IPCC reports.  Low lying coastal areas such as the deltas in Bangladesh are already impacted. Rising sea levels means tens of thousands of kilometers of land will be submerged and millions of people will be displaced.

Is international agreement on carbon emission reduction targets feasible? What does the report recommend? 

We’re just one year away from the most anticipated climate change conference yet. An objective of next year’s conference in Paris is a fair and legally-binding climate change agreement for all countries to come into effect in 2020.

The IPCC report outlines scenarios based on emission levels. Some are better than others. The business-as-usual scenario is the most dire. The ideal scenario will lead to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to limit global temperature increases to just 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

Canada, Japan, Russia and the United States did not sign on to the first and second term of the Kyoto Protocol, and do not have binding targets. There’s significant work to be done in 2015 but there is still hope that a binding agreement with aggressive targets can be reached.     

The report paints a grim picture. Some will call it alarmist, blaming climate change on future social problems like poverty, violence, disease and population displacement. Are the report’s warnings balanced and justified?

Yes. This is the IPCC’s fifth report; we’ve had 25 years to learn and digest this material. Perhaps we are not raising the alarm enough? How many crops need to fail, how many extreme events need to occur? How many more people need to die or be displaced before we take action?  I hope for the day when we can come together at these annual climate conferences to demonstrate all the great progress we’ve been making.

The issue of climate change, for better or worse, has become a political issue. Do you think this report will change anything, especially in the way the public perceives this issue?

This is a comprehensive report, with 30 chapters on water resources, food security, economics, urban and rural areas, human health, poverty, and regional chapters on Africa, South America and Asia.  I would challenge everyone to pick their topic of interest and read a chapter.

 

(Cover photo by Argonne National Laboratory via Flickr)




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