The summary of the Impact, Vulnerability and Adaptation report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came out today, and the media have churned out as much of their climate stuff as possible all on the same day. A scan of the media coverage provides some easy things to scare your kids with before bed. Some bits are more “alarmist” than others, but there a consensus that the report spells bad news for the 21st century … unless of course, action is taken now. Risks to food security, threats of civil wars and local unrest, exacerbation of illness and health issues, water scarcity, economic losses – at times it reads like the introduction to a modern-day apocalyptic prophesy.
That’s not to say all is lost, however. The report is keen to make out that while things look pretty bleak, adaptation is possible and that the worst is avoidable, (although,perhaps worryingly, there’s only limited evidence to show what it might all cost)
So much you can read in the newspapers. At the very least, we can put aside the tedious debates about whether climate change is happening or not. We also now have enough accredited research to demonstrate that a changing climate most definitely is a bad thing, on balance, for everyone on the planet. Those who are have tried (in the last year or so) to argue that it could, on balance, be OK, have been thoroughly undermined by this report, which represents the latest in peer-reviewed scientific research. We can also minimise the equally tedious debate about whether climate change is man-made (anthropogenic) or not. Either way, it doesn’t change the fact that we need to adapt to coming changes, whatever is causing them. That means some cold, hard cash has to be made available, and quickly, otherwise this process won’t happen in the places where it really needs to.
All that being said, while the media focused on economic losses, conflict and food security, there were other bits that were no less important.
Climate Change and Communities
The IPCC highlights the integrated nature of climate change to the life of communities. In particular, it highlights that those who are “socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalized are especially vulnerable to climate change”. The use of the term “marginalization” implies exclusion from something larger, such as economic or cultural communities. The report continues, “heightened vulnerability .. is the product of intersecting social processes that result in inequalities in socioeconomic status an income, as well as exposure.” Which translates as, inequalities in communities and discrimination of specific groups actively increases vulnerability.
What’s implied is that reducing climate change vulnerability requires more than clever technology or well designed agricultural programs. It also strongly suggests that taking climate change seriously necessitates thinking seriously about social values and the economic organisation of communities – specifically, the causes of societal inequality and discrimination. That’s quite dramatic, because it means that it’s not enough to talk about changing weather when you’re talking about climate change. You also have to start talking about changes to society, and those are big questions.
There are some quite worrying ambiguities and “known unknowns” dotted around the report. The biggest is the uncertainty surrounding the 9 supposed “tipping points” – that is, certain parts of the climate, specific ecosystems or regions facing sudden and “irreversible” changes. What we know is that parts of the global ecosystem that help to hold it all in balance can, when faced with a critical amount of stress, very suddenly shift their state, leading to collapse of that system. One example is that of “forest dieback” of the Amazon (“The Earth’s lungs”) – once you cut down enough trees in the Amazon, they don’t grow back again – the opposite happens, more trees die. What we don’t know with any certainty is what the exact stressors are that we should be afraid of, and how close we are to crossing the dreaded tipping points. Needless to say, tipping points are very bad news, as they bring very sudden changes with unpredictable consequences.
The Threat of Food Insecurity
The issues of food security have been covered thoroughly by the media, but the real global implications have only been breezed over. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s only a problem because already hungry people in already poor countries are going to get hungrier and poorer. But the repercussions of food security, when connected to other global processes, are extremely unpredictable. Firstly, it means your food bills will continue rising for quite some time, as will everyone elses (globally). That’s a problem, as in some volatile countries, that’s enough to trigger protests, riots, and with the right combination of government oppression and poverty, civil wars. Historically, expensive food or shortages of it are enough to topple governments and put extremists in power. We’ve just watched it happen in Libya and Syria, and we don’t really know what the global repercussions are yet for the global economy, terrorism, or any other number of non climate related issues.
So while the media and climate camp celebrates this collection of what we do know, and yet another affirmation of what they have been saying for some time now, it’s important not to forget the even more worrying bits that we don’t know, because it could be those and their unidentified consequences that catch us out.