The latest study from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said the effects of warming were being felt everywhere, fuelling potential food shortages and natural disasters throughout the world. It warned the effects were likely to be “irreversible” and could lead to wars, as extreme weather and poverty cause social unrest.
The report, based on more than 12,000 scientific studies and described by authors as “the most solid evidence you can get in any scientific discipline”, said the impact was already being felt and would increase with every additional degree that temperatures rose.
Commissioned by the governments of 195 countries, it said the world was in “an era of man-made climate change” and had already seen the effects on every continent and across the oceans.
It concluded that flooding, droughts, heatwaves and wildfires would pose a massive threat to humans as climate change worsened. And experts warned that, in many cases, people were ill-prepared to cope with the expected risks.
Michel Jarraud, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organisation, said people could have damaged the Earth’s climate out of “ignorance” in the past. “Now, ignorance is no longer a good excuse,” he warned.
This is the second of three IPCC reports addressing the causes and impacts of climate change – and the solutions.
The first, last September, looked at the physical science and said experts were 95 per cent certain humans were the “dominant cause” of global warming.
The third part, to be finalised this month, will examine what steps mankind can take to reduce the problem.
Yesterday’s study said the world had seen changes in recent decades to water resources as a result of melting glaciers and differences in rainfall, as well as reductions in wheat and maize yields.
There had been a drop in the number of people dying from the cold but an increase in heat-related deaths in some areas, such as England and Wales. Recent floods in parts of Britain have also been attributed to climate change.
The Met Office predicted British winters were likely to become milder and wetter, like the last one. Summers were likely to be hotter and drier, but washouts were still on the cards.
Analysis by environmental group WWF Scotland showed emissions per person were higher in Scotland than in China. Figures from the Word Bank estimated each person in China was responsible for 6.2 tonnes of CO², while people in the UK produced 7.9 tonnes. The US figure was 17.6 tonnes.
The IPCC study talked of shifts in the range and abundance of marine species, damage to coral reefs and more frequent outbreaks of wildfires.
It said that, while the impacts of climate change could be limited by action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and by adapting to the changes, in many cases the world was ill-prepared to cope with the effects of rising temperatures. The greater the rise in temperatures, the more likely the world was to see severe and widespread impacts, even reaching “tipping points” that triggered abrupt and irreversible changes to the planet.
The report said that, while the problems would hit everyone in some way, the magnitude of the harm would not be equal, coming down harder on people who could least afford it.
But the authors insisted this was not a modern-day version of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and that much of their warning related to more nuanced troubles that would grow by degrees. They also stressed there were uncertainties in understanding and predicting future climate risks.
In the wake of the report, RSPB Scotland warned the problem was threatening the country’s unique natural heritage. Birds such as kittiwakes, dotterels and snow buntings, along with Scotland’s rare machair grassland habitats, were among the most vulnerable, it said.
Jim Densham, senior climate policy officer at RSPB Scotland, said: “The IPCC report powerfully backs up what we know about the changes that are already affecting Scotland’s natural heritage.
“Some of our most special wildlife and habitats are suffering now from the impacts of a changing climate. The report is a wake-up call for all governments, including our own, to redouble efforts to halt climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions in all sectors of our economy and society.”
In addition, there were calls from scientists and campaigners for action to cut greenhouse gases and help vulnerable people adapt to already unavoidable impacts of climate change.
Professor Peter Smith, of Aberdeen University, one of the many authors of the IPCC study, said Scotland’s wind and wave power could be vital in future.
He said: “We need to invest some of our efforts and skills in renewable energy technologies, such as offshore wind. We have a lot of renewable energy in Scotland, so we have the potential to become a world leader in it. It is a windy country with a big coastline, so we could be trapping some of the energy from waves.”
Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “Business as usual means a very grim future, especially if you live in a poor country, where floods, droughts, food shortages and rising sea levels will make life very difficult indeed.
“But nowhere will escape major impacts, as global food production is devastated and hundreds of millions of people flee homelands no longer able to support them.
“This report is a very stark reminder of why the world needs to give up on fossil fuels as quickly as possible to make sure the worst of these predictions don’t come true.”
Foreign Secretary William Hague said: “It is clear from the IPCC’s report a two-degree increase in the world’s temperature would be dangerous, and four degrees would be catastrophic.
“But that is the likely trajectory, unless there is unprecedented global co-operation to bring down emissions.
“No country would be left unaffected. Governments everywhere have to act.”
US secretary of state John Kerry said: “Unless we act dramatically and quickly, science tells us our climate and our way of life are literally in jeopardy. The costs of inaction are catastrophic.”
Gina Hanrahan: Stark warning of dangers we face, but it is not too late to put things right
IN THE midst of spring, and with the memory of this winter’s crazy weather beginning to fade for those not still reeling from its impacts, it’s easy to see climate change as a distant problem. However, the IPPC’s report reinforces with data what people from Darfur to Dumfries know from lived experience. It shows climate change is not just tomorrow’s challenge. It’s here and happening now across every continent and ocean, affecting people’s lives and livelihoods, as well as precious wildlife and habitats that sustain them.
At a global level, the risks of a warming world are set out clearly in the report: more people will go hungry because of warming, drought and severe downpours; cities could be damaged by coastal storm surges or river flooding; heatwaves will affect the most vulnerable, and fish and land animals could be in trouble, hurting the communities that depend on them for their livelihoods.
The science also shows more intense weather, like the floods that struck this winter, will become more common in places like Scotland, placing strain on our economy, as well as on our critical infrastructure like electricity, water and emergency services. We know, too, that in an increasingly interconnected world, interruptions to food supply on another continent will quickly be evident on the shelves of our local Sainsbury’s.
It could be tempting to think the solutions to climate change are beyond our reach. But the good news is we already have most of the tools at our disposal to minimise the risks. We can limit climate instability and adapt to some of the changes we see now if we rapidly reduce emissions from our use of fossil fuels and invest in clean energy technologies.
Scotland’s already recognised the benefits of early action and is making real progress on its low carbon journey, with renewables meeting almost half our electricity needs. However, we need to build as much momentum towards warmer, fuel-efficient homes and greener travel if we’re to maintain our climate leadership.
The solutions to climate change are an opportunity to protect the things we love, from incredible exotic species like tigers to treasured places like Scotland’s magical machair. And they’re within our grasp.
• Gina Hanrahan is climate and energy policy officer at WWF Scotland