Part one of two
AT the end of last month, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released an alarming report, “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability,” which draws the basic conclusion that efforts to reverse or even halt climate change are futile, and that attention should shift to finding ways to adapt to a new and harsher climate reality.
The 30-chapter report, which had nearly 700 authors and more than 1,700 reviewers from 84 different countries, along with 49 separate government reviews, was received with about the same fanfare as most climate-related news—which is to say almost none at all, although the report did receive a moderate amount of dutiful media coverage.
That is not at all surprising, because over the past couple of decades, society has become inured to warnings of climate change effects. Climate science is a broad and complex discipline that necessarily deals in variabilities over long periods of time, and neither the public nor the governments they create are very good at dealing with such abstractions.
The IPCC report itself does not help overcome this shortcoming, either; it is huge, for one thing (so big that it can only be offered for download in sections, a process that takes most of an afternoon at the plodding speeds of Philippine internet providers), and it is written with absolute adherence to the conventions of scientific rigor. Even so, if one is careful and patient in reading it, a number of startling facts emerge:
• Global temperatures will noticeably rise in the next 7 to 10 years—Global temperatures now are already at least 0.5 degrees C warmer than they were at the beginning of the 20th century, and by 2025 will increase by about that much again. In other words, no matter what the world does to respond to climate change, we will see a century’s worth of temperature increase compressed into about a decade. Beyond that, it depends how the world addresses the problem; if aggressive, global scale efforts to mitigate climate change are undertaken, we could limit the additional temperature increase to about another 0.5 degrees C by 2100. If—as seems more likely, given the lack of achievement of international negotiations on emissions reductions—the current trajectory of growth and economic activity continues, we will see temperature increases beyond 2025 of 2.5 to 5.0 degrees or more.
• The biggest impacts in the Southeast Asian region will be on food and water supplies, and the increased threat of extreme weather patterns—Corn and wheat will suffer reductions in yields, while soybeans and rice could, if managed properly, maintain their present productivity and even increase a little, although the prognosis for rice is that decreasing yields is more likely. Population growth, population shifts due to extreme weather events or rising sea levels, and increased drought cycles will also constrict fresh water supplies, although to what degree the scientists cannot estimate at this point. A big issue for the Philippines is the expected loss of fisheries, an impact that will be noticeable in the next decade; temperature stress on marine species will kill off some and force others to move northward; this may actually be an advantage for the fishing industry in the northern part of the country, but southern waters could see losses of more than 50 percent of their fishing stocks.
• Other economic sectors that will be heavily impacted in the Philippines include the health care, tourism, and insurance sectors—Increased pressure will be put on health systems as a result of increases in injuries and illnesses due to climate events, increases in heat-related illnesses, and potential increases in climate-affected diseases such as dengue and malaria. The tourism sector will most likely suffer as a combination of extreme weather events and hotter temperatures drive tourism business poleward, away from the tropics. Insurers will see greater losses and loss variability because of climate effects, but on the other hand, there is a potential for business growth in commercial reinsurance and risk-based securities.
These are just the effects which the authors of the IPCC are in near-unanimous agreement about, and for which there is strong supporting evidence. There are many more effects that cannot be estimated with certainty, and throughout the entire report the point is constantly repeated that the climate-change research community frankly does not yet know what it does not know – all available evidence points to the virtual impossibility that things might not turn out as bad as we think they will, but how much worse they might be, no one can say with any confidence.
For the Philippines, the twin challenges of developing comprehensive climate-mitigation plans and then actually funding them are obligations the government—and Philippine society in general—seem reluctant to face. A large part of that attitude stems from an official policy of mendicancy: The Philippines does not produce a large volume of the emissions that are wrecking the environment, therefore it is the responsibility of those countries that do to pay for the damage caused, and the remedial work the Philippines must do to cope with the new climate reality. That perspective is not completely mendacious, but it is completely misdirected; by looking to the United States and Europe to “compensate” the Philippines for climate effects, the Philippines is sending the bill to the wrong recipients. And it is a bill that the Philippines might not have as much authority to issue as it thinks it does; I’ll cover that in Part Two on Saturday.