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UN experts predict higher temperatures and hunger

21 March 2014

Scientists have come together to look at the future effects of climate change - and many countries are at risk, says Joe Ware


Survivors: a road in Eastern Samar, in the Philippines, after the floods

Survivors: a road in Eastern Samar, in the Philippines, after the floods

NEXT week, the world's leading climate scientists publish their latest report, in which they predict the impact that the changing climate will have on the world in the coming years.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the first part (Working Group I) last year. It examined the atmospheric science, and raised their level of certainty that climate change was being driven by human activity to an "almost certain" 95 per cent.

This second part (Working Group II) translates that science into the physical impact which is likely to follow from an increase in greenhouse-gas emissions such as carbon dioxide. The report comes only weeks after Britain experienced record rainfall, which flooded large parts of the south of England, and storm surges that washed away the coastal railway in Devon.

The Chief Scientist at the Met Office, Dame Julia Sligo, said at the time that the storms were a likely result of climate change. The Prime Minister said that he believed the extreme weather in the UK and the United States were linked to global climate-change.

Member-states of the UN have agreed to take action to ensure that global temperatures do not exceed two degrees above the pre-Industrial Revolution level - the level described as "dangerous climate-change" by scientists. Two degrees may not sound like much, but the changes in climate which are being experienced now are at a current rate of 0.8 degrees above pre-industrial levels; and, unless substantial action is taken to curb emissions in the next few years, the two-degree target will not be met.

The IPCC's report will not officially be published until 31 March, but leaks of the draft document provide an idea of the findings. For example, acidification of the oceans is happening at a faster rate than any time in the past 65 million years, and a large fraction of species face an increased risk of extinction. The impact on food production is already visible in several regions, and yields are expected to drop by as much as two per cent each decade from 2030.

Child malnutrition will be a key risk, as not only food quantity but also food quality will be affected. In Africa, there will be a faster temperature rise than the global average, and rainfall is failing in arid regions. The leaked report also says that Northern Europe can expect more rainfall, while much of the infrastructure of North Americawill be vulnerable to extreme weather. Small island-states willbe even more at risk from sea-level rise.

This will be the fifth "assessment report" of its kind produced by the IPCC, a body made up of thousands of scientists from around the world who volunteer their time to review and test the latest climate science. The third part (Working Group III), to be published next month, will outline what practical steps haveto be taken to tackle rising global temperatures.

It is hoped that the three partsof the report will be used by governments to shape their domestic and international energy policies in the coming years.

Two decisions which will have a significant impact on global climate will be made in the next 18 months. The first is the global pact that was promised at the UN climate summit in Durban in 2011 (News, Comment, 9 December 2011), and will probably be agreed in Paris in November 2015. The pact is to include countries' commitments on emissions cuts, and the promise of finance from rich industrialised countries to help poor ones adapt to the effects of climate change.

Next year, the Millennium Development Goals end, and their successors will be created. Christian Aid and other NGOs are urging governments to ensure that environmental targets are at the core of these new goals, such is the impact of climate change on international development.

To coincide with the publication of the IPCC's report Working Group II, Christian Aid has published a new report, Taken by Storm: responding to the impacts of climate change. This suggests that climate change is not only a problem for future generations, but is affecting people today and forcing communities to change their ways of life. Here are some examples.


A RISE in sea-level is one of the clearest examples of climate change as higher global temperatures melt ice-caps and glaciers. Bangladesh is particularly vulnerable, because 35.1 million people live in its 47,000-sq-km coastal zone. As well as increasing the damage caused by storm surges - Cyclone Aila struck the region in 2009, and left one million people homeless - higher sea-levels also contribute to the salinisation of groundwater.

Selina Begum has found farming increasingly difficult. She said: "Previously, I used to cultivate rice. Now this is becoming really difficult.

"People are beginning to cultivate fish, because water in this area is becoming so salty. It is too expensive to cultivate rice like we used to. Sometimes the water is so salty that even the fish are dying. This salty water is harmful to our environment and to the rice fields.'


WHILE the UK faced the misery of floods, and the United States experienced the polar vortex, the Philippines was battered by Typhoon Haiyan in November last year. It killed more than 6000 people, displaced 4.1 million, and destroyed more than 1.1 million houses.

Ronnie Flores, who lives in the province of Eastern Samar, managed to escape the waves that rushed through his village at 4 a.m., and saved his four-year-old niece, Angelica. "I lived with my sister [Angelica's mother] and her husband," he said. "Our house was totally damaged by the storm. It was made of concrete, and we thought it would be OK. Only the floor remains.

"The waves came in and dragged us out to sea as the wave retreated again. I really had to struggle to keep hold of Angelica and get to the shore. I have been looking for my sister ever since, but she's still missing, we can't find her body." Angelica's father was also killed.

"My grandparents were also killed as they remained in their house," Mr Flores said. "Me and Angelica are now living with my aunt's family."


THERE are few African countries which are as vulnerable to climate change as landlocked Malawi. Ninety per cent of its rural population is reliant on the land for survival; so weather extremes, such as erratic rainfall, floods, and droughts, are dangerous. Not only is the weather more extreme - high temperatures are a particular threat - it is much harder to predict.

The traditional signs of nature, which farmers have relied on for generations to guide their actions, have been thrown into disarray. A farmer, James Kheiri, explained that the language of the seasons passed down by his parents was now worthless: "You need to plant knowing that it will rain in the next two or three days. If it doesn't rain when you need it to, you can lose your seed. Before, we used to be able to predict that by the time of year, and seeing the signs, but now we can't. The temperature would rise, and we would know the rains were coming.

"Now, the temperature rises, the winds come, but no rain. There were flowers which would bloom just before the rains. We used lots of signs that have no meaning any more."


SINCE the 1970s, the glaciers of the tropical Andes have reduced in mass by between 30 and 50 per cent. For the millions of people who rely on the glaciers as their main source of drinking water, this is a worrying trend.

Bolivians used to boast that the ski slope Chacaltaya was the highest in the world. Now there is no longer any snow to ski on. Glaciers and ice-sheets store about 75 per cent of the world's fresh water. Once the flow from glaciers becomes irregular, so does water availability.

This is a problem for the indigenous communities of the Andes, in Bolivia, who depend on glaciers for drinking water, sanitation, and to grow food. Alivio Aruquipa lives in the shadow of the Illimani glacier. "We don't have enough water to grow our crops," he said. "There are conflicts over water between the different communities, because we all need water, and there isn't enough for everyone."

The higher temperatures that have caused glacial retreat have brought other problems. Mr Aruquipa said: "There are new in-sects on our crops because ofhigher temperatures. We can't produce now without spraying the crops."

El Salvador

THE World Bank says: "Central America produces less than 0.5 per cent of global carbon emissions, but it is one the most vulnerable regions to climate-change-related impacts on the planet." These include extreme weather, rising sea-levels, increased temperatures, and erratic rainfall.

For the smallest Central American country, El Salvador, climate change acts a multiplier of existing acute poverty. Mauricio Cruz is the leader of one of the local ADESCOs, a group of 200 families who work together in the event of an emergency.

"Big countries are responsible for climate change, more than countries like El Salvador," he said. "I know that it is impossible for us to do anything here, if countries that are responsible for emissions don't do anything. They need to change their way of life, but we're trying, too, because we understand the impact of climate change.

"Climate change at the global level exists. Maybe people [in the developed world] don't believe it, because you have everything you need. But when you're poor, you see it happening. Poor people experience it more. We are already used to living with a high level of vulnerability, but that vulnerability is increasing."


ALTHOUGH there are some elements of the impact of climate change which are impossible to adapt to, such as the acidification of the oceans, and destruction of coral reefs, in some places the ingenuity of local organisations are helping people to survive.

In Malawi, some farmers are being helped by mobile-phone technology. Staff working for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency send text messages to head farmers, giving them detailed weather forecasts so that they know when the rains are on their way. These forecasts are then circulated throughout the community, so all the farmers benefit.

The Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh (CCDB) helps people by providing them with Campbellducks, a breed developed in England in the 19th century that are more resistant to salt water, and produce more eggs than local breeds.

CCBD also helps farmers to produce floating gardens made of bamboo and hyacinth, where chillies, cabbages, and okra can be grown during the rainy season, when much of the land is completely submerged.

In El Salvador, a local-development organisation, Acudesbal, a Christian Aid partner, helps people to prepare for storms. One of the community leaders, Concepción Martinez, said: "The biggest impact of their work is the way they have raised our awareness of issues like climate change, and how to adapt to it.

"The early-warning systems we now use have helped us greatly: they've saved lives, and we've been able to prevent disasters. We know how to plant new rice varieties which are resistant to floods or drought. The construction of our drainage systems has also had a high impact, and there is usually less flooding."

In Bolivia, Agua Sustentable helped to build a reservoir to capture the irregular glacial meltwater. This then served as a more reliable source of water for up to 40 families.

Martin Vilela of Agua Sustentable is pleased to be able to provide practical help, but is clear that these are only temporary solutions. "We can't constantly be adapting," he said. "I think it's important that the communities find immediate responses to the changes. . . So another key area of our work is to show to the global community the reality of the communities, and the impact of climate change that they feel. So they can realise climate change is real, and start to take actions to find concrete responses at a global level." 

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