Panel’s Warning on Climate Risk: Worst Is Yet to Come
By JUSTIN GILLIS
YOKOHAMA, Japan — Climate change is already having sweeping effects on
every continent and throughout the world’s oceans, scientists reported
on Monday, and they warned that the problem was likely to grow
substantially worse unless greenhouse emissions are brought under control.
The report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United
Nations group that periodically summarizes climate science, concluded
that ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water
supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are
intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and fish and many other creatures
are migrating toward the poles or in some cases going extinct.
The oceans are rising at a pace that threatens coastal communities and
are becoming more acidic as they absorb some of the carbon dioxide given
off by cars and power plants, which is killing some creatures or
stunting their growth, the report found.
Organic matter frozen in Arctic soils since before civilization began is
now melting, allowing it to decay into greenhouse gases that will cause
further warming, the scientists said. And the worst is yet to come, the
scientists said in the second of three reports that are expected to
carry considerable weight next year as nations try to agree on a new
global climate treaty.
In particular, the report emphasized that the world’s food supply is at
considerable risk — a threat that could have serious consequences for
the poorest nations.
“Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of
climate change,” Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the intergovernmental
panel, said at a news conference here on Monday presenting the report.
The report was among the most sobering yet issued by the scientific
panel. The group, along with Al Gore, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
in 2007 for its efforts to clarify the risks of climate change. The
report is the final work of several hundred authors; details from the
drafts of this and of the last report in the series, which will be
released in Berlin in April, leaked in the last few months.
The report attempts to project how the effects will alter human society
in coming decades. While the impact of global warming may actually be
moderated by factors like economic or technological change, the report
found, the disruptions are nonetheless likely to be profound. That will
be especially so if emissions are allowed to continue at a runaway pace,
the report said.
It cited the risk of death or injury on a wide scale, probable damage to
public health, displacement of people and potential mass migrations.
“Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to
slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult,
further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty
traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of
hunger,” the report declared.
The report also cited the possibility of violent conflict over land,
water or other resources, to which climate change might contribute
indirectly “by exacerbating well-established drivers of these conflicts
such as poverty and economic shocks.” The scientists emphasized that
climate change is not just a problem of the distant future, but is
Studies have found that parts of the Mediterranean region are drying out
because of climate change, and some experts believe that droughts there
have contributed to political destabilization in the Middle East and
In much of the American West, mountain snowpack is declining,
threatening water supplies for the region, the scientists said in the
report. And the snow that does fall is melting earlier in the year,
which means there is less melt water to ease the parched summers. In
Alaska, the collapse of sea ice is allowing huge waves to strike the
coast, causing erosion so rapid that it is already forcing entire
communities to relocate.
“Now we are at the point where there is so much information, so much
evidence, that we can no longer plead ignorance,” Michel Jarraud,
secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization, said at the
The report was quickly welcomed in Washington, where President Obama is
trying to use his executive power under the Clean Air Act and other laws
to impose significant new limits on the country’s greenhouse emissions.
He faces determined opposition in Congress.
“There are those who say we can’t afford to act,” Secretary of State
John Kerry said in a statement. “But waiting is truly unaffordable. The
costs of inaction are catastrophic.”
Amid all the risks the experts cited, they did find a bright spot. Since
the intergovernmental panel issued its last big report in 2007, it has
found growing evidence that governments and businesses around the world
are making extensive plans to adapt to climate disruptions, even as some
conservatives in the United States and a small number of scientists
continue to deny that a problem exists.
Tracks were flooded at Grand Central Station in Oct. 2012, after
Hurricane Sandy hit New York. Credit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
“I think that dealing effectively with climate change is just going to
be something that great nations do,” said Christopher B. Field,
co-chairman of the working group that wrote the report and an earth
scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif.
Talk of adaptation to global warming was once avoided in some quarters,
on the ground that it would distract from the need to cut emissions. But
the past few years have seen a shift in thinking, including research
from scientists and economists who argue that both strategies must be
pursued at once.
A striking example of the change occurred recently in the state of New
York, where the Public Service Commission ordered Consolidated Edison,
the electric utility serving New York City and some suburbs, to spend
about $1 billion upgrading its system to prevent future damage from
flooding and other weather disruptions.
The plan is a reaction to the blackouts caused by Hurricane Sandy. Con
Ed will raise flood walls, bury some vital equipment and conduct a study
of whether emerging climate risks require even more changes. Other
utilities in the state face similar requirements, and utility regulators
across the United States are discussing whether to follow New York’s lead.
But with a global failure to limit greenhouse gases, the risk is rising
that climatic changes in coming decades could overwhelm such efforts to
adapt, the panel found. It cited a particular risk that in a hotter
climate, farmers will not be able to keep up with the fast-rising demand
“When supply falls below demand, somebody doesn’t have enough food,”
said Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University climate scientist who
helped write the new report. “When some people don’t have food, you get
starvation. Yes, I’m worried.”
The poorest people in the world, who have had virtually nothing to do
with causing global warming, will be high on the list of victims as
climatic disruptions intensify, the report said. It cited a World Bank
estimate that poor countries need as much as $100 billion a year to try
to offset the effects of climate change; they are now getting, at best,
a few billion dollars a year in such aid from rich countries.
The $100 billion figure, though included in the 2,500-page main report,
was removed from a 48-page executive summary to be read by the world’s
top political leaders. It was among the most significant changes made as
the summary underwent final review during an editing session of several
days in Yokohama.
The edit came after several rich countries, including the United States,
raised questions about the language, according to several people who
were in the room at the time but did not wish to be identified because
the negotiations were private. The language is contentious because poor
countries are expected to renew their demand for aid this September in
New York at a summit meeting of world leaders, who will attempt to make
headway on a new treaty to limit greenhouse gases.
Many rich countries argue that $100 billion a year is an unrealistic
demand; it would essentially require them to double their budgets for
foreign aid, at a time of economic distress at home. That argument has
fed a rising sense of outrage among the leaders of poor countries, who
feel their people are paying the price for decades of profligate Western
Two decades of international efforts to limit emissions have yielded
little result, and it is not clear whether the negotiations in New York
this fall will be any different. While greenhouse gas emissions have
begun to decline slightly in many wealthy countries, including the
United States, those gains are being swamped by emissions from rising
economic powers like China and India.
For the world’s poorer countries, food is not the only issue, but it may
be the most acute. Several times in recent years, climatic disruptions
in major growing regions have helped to throw supply and demand out of
balance, contributing to price increases that have reversed decades of
gains against global hunger, at least temporarily.
The warning about the food supply in the new report is much sharper in
tone than any previously issued by the panel. That reflects a growing
body of research about how sensitive many crops are to heat waves and
water stress. The report said that climate change was already dragging
down the output of wheat and corn at a global scale, compared to what it
would otherwise be.
David B. Lobell, a Stanford University scientist who has published much
of the recent research and helped write the new report, said in an
interview that as yet, too little work was being done to understand the
risk, much less counter it with improved crop varieties and farming
techniques. “It is a surprisingly small amount of effort for the
stakes,” he said.
Timothy Gore, an analyst for Oxfam, the antipoverty group that sent
observers to the proceedings in Yokohama, praised the new report as
painting a clear picture of the consequences of a warming planet. But he
warned that without greater efforts to limit global warming and to adapt
to the changes that have become inevitable, “the goal we have in Oxfam
of ensuring that every person has enough food to eat could be lost forever.”