Issue 5 Online Extra Prepare for Climate Change by Michael C. MacCracken

This article is a companion piece to The New Idealist Issue Five: Doomsday Edition which you can download here.

Please note: This article was originally published in The New Idealist section of The Intelligent Review site in May 2014 before being transferred to this new site in July 2015.

It was nearly thirty years ago that scientists from 29 countries gathered in Villach, Austria, brought together by the International Council of Science met with resource and other managers under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization to discuss the results of emerging research on climate change. The lead finding and recommendation of the resulting report were impressively prescient: º

Many important economic and social decisions are being made today on long-term projects major water resource management activities such as irrigation and hydro-power, drought relief, agricultural land use, structural designs and coastal engineering projects, and energy planning all based on the assumption that past climatic data, without modification, are a reliable guide to the future. This is no longer a good assumption since the increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases are expected to cause a significant warming of the global climate in the next century. It is a matter of urgency to refine estimates of future climate conditions to improve these decisions.[1]

Very simply stated, the future will be different than the past—not just at the global level, but at the level at which individual projects are developed, at which people are living and at which the environment is being affected.

As time has gone on, the evidence that the climate is changing has become much stronger. At the global level, human activities are the only explanation for the relatively rapid warming during the late 20th century. Although a series of small volcanic eruptions and an increase in the sulfate loading due to air pollutant emissions in eastern and southern Asia seem to have temporarily countered the ongoing warming influence of rising greenhouse gas concentrations, other climatic indicators continue to indicate that extra energy is being trapped and building up: Arctic sea ice is thinning and, along with snow cover on land, is melting back; the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are losing mass; the ocean is warming and sea level is rising; the frost free season is growing longer; the ranges of flora and fauna are shifting poleward; and more.

While these changes may seem gradual and even remote, other changes are occurring much more rapidly. In what is a direct verification of the Villach prediction, James Hansen and colleagues[2] have analyzed changes in summer average temperature for land areas around the world. Considering summers from 1951 to 1980 as the baseline, they subdivided the bell-shaped distribution into the warm, middle, and cool terciles. For each of the next three decades, the results showed a shift of the frequency distribution toward warming and away from cooling. The shift was particularly notable for extreme summer conditions. In particular, for the most recent decade, the fraction of the global land areas experiencing what had been considered really hot summers had increased from one-thousandth to one-tenth! That is a factor of 100 increase in the likelihood of having what used to be very hot summers, conditions often associated with very dry, and so fire prone, conditions.

And temperatures are not the only conditions that are becoming more extreme and unusual for society. Observations on all of the populated continents indicate that a greater fraction of the precipitation is coming in drenching rains, a not unexpected consequence of the rising atmospheric water vapor concentration. Simultaneously, rising sea level is increasing the expected storm surge heights during storms, adding to the inundation that comes with intense precipitation.

We are now nearly three decades past the initial international warning and advice to resource and disaster managers to prepare for the changing climate. Our major cities and communities were built to based on past conditions; it is now essential to accept that conditions have changed, and will certainly change more in the future. Every time that a decision is being considered about a capital project, decision makers need to be ensuring that the design will be resilient to the conditions projected for the future, investing incrementally now so that the pains of loss and costs of replacement do not become routine. The time horizon for planning and building simply has to become much longer than the term of office or all of the resources that could be advancing well-being will have to be diverted to recovery, relocation, and rebuilding. Preparation now will save lives, hardship, and money later.

By Michael C. MacCracken, Chief Scientist for Climate Change Programs, Climate Institute, Washington DC USA


[1] World Meteorological Organization (WMO), 1985: Report of the International Conference on the Assessment of the Role of Carbon Dioxide and of Other Greenhouse Gases in Climate Variations and Associated Impacts, World Meteorological Organization Publication #661, Geneva.
[2] Hansen, J., M. Sato, and R. Ruedy, 2012: Perception of climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109, 14726-14727, E2415-E2423, doi:10.1073/pnas.1205276109.

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