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The Science

Now that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has formally released its Fourth Assessment Report, the pressure is on governments everywhere to actually do something. This report synthesizes the three component reports released earlier in the year, in which world governments reluctantly acknowledged that the science is now clear:

  • Climate warming is unequivocal;
  • It is primarily caused by human greenhouse gas emissions;
  • There are already clear effects on many areas, including:
    • forestry
    • agriculture
    • water supplies
    • human health.
  • Human emissions are continuing to grow, and will have even bigger climate change effects in the 21st century.

    Geographical pattern of surface warming



    • The economic, human and environmental cost will be enormous and unprecedented.
    • The poor, the Arctic and the small island states will suffer the most, but no one will be unaffected.
    • There will be more heat, less snow. Worse storms, worse flooding, more drought. Extensive species losses. Severe competition over water. Wildfires. Starvation in Africa; epidemics of diarrhea in Asia.
    • In many places, crops and trees will stop growing from the heat.
    • Changes may be abrupt or irreversible.

    After Kyoto?

    From December 3 to 14, 2007, world governments will be meeting in Bali, Indonesia, for the annual Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It was an earlier meeting of this group, in Kyoto, Japan, that developed the Kyoto Protocol, requiring developed countries to modestly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions between 2008 and 2012.

    The Kyoto Protocol will only be partially implemented, because of countries like the US, which refused to participate, and Canada, which has reneged on our international obligations. However, the Bali meeting is looking ahead, focussing on a new climate change agreement for more stringent reductions post-2012.

    Almost everyone agrees on the main outlines of what has to be done. Unfortunately, no one wants to pay for it. Rich countries don’t want to accept painful cuts if the benefits will be swamped by growing emissions from China, India and Brazil. Developing countries emphasize that their per capita emissions are still low, and that their people have legitimate demands for a better life. Oil producing states demand compensation if demand is reduced for their oil. And why should anyone take international obligations seriously if North Americans, the world’s biggest emitters, do not?

    While the arguments are sadly predictable, the stakes are perilously high.



    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Fourth Assessment Report in several volumes over the course of 2007. The first volume, released in February, covered the physical science basis for climate change. The second volume, released in March, covered climate change impacts, adaptation and those aspects of our infrastructure, lifestyle and ecosystems that will suffer as our climate changes. The third volume, released in April, covered mitigation – those actions the world can take to reduce the severity of our changing climate. The report released this week was a synthesis of the three previous volumes.

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