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This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Part 2: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability

Summary.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued  Part 2 of its Fifth Assessment Report, “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability”, in March 2014.  Part 2 discusses the need for and implementation of adaptation strategies for coping with the adverse effects of global warming.

Warming causes harms to human populations and natural environments around the globe.  Because of effects such as loss of water resources, lower crop yields, and exposure to extreme weather events, human wellbeing is severely affected. The world needs to adapt to these new climate realities.  Part 2 presents strategies for developing adaptation programs, emphasizing that this process depends importantly on risk management and the repetitive cycling of planning, implementation and assessment.  A major difficulty envisioned is procuring adequate funding for these endeavors. 

Introduction. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is established under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  Four Assessment Reports (ARs) have been issued previously beginning in 1990; they are summarized here.  Part 2 of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (5AR), “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability”, was released on March 31, 2014 and is discussed here.  This post is based on its Summary for Policymakers (SPM) (Part 1 of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (5AR), “The Physical Science Basis”, was released on September 30, 2013, reported on here.  Part 3, “Mitigation of Climate Change”, is due in April, 2014.)

The IPCC Assessment Reports carry great weight among climate scientists and policymakers around the world.  Each part is assembled by a large group of researchers who are specialists in their respective fields, drawn from many of the UN member states.  The draft reports are subjected to two rounds of scientific review and approval by selected governments before being released (see Details at the end of this post.)  This process assures the most rigorous scientific validity and forms a sound basis for policy development.

Review of the Current Global Status Concerning Adaptation

Adaptation has grown to be an important topic because the world’s climate has already changed, inflicting harm on human populations and degrading the natural environment.  Worldwide impacts have already been felt across terrestrial and oceanic environments.  An extensive summary in SPM of global changes attributed largely to climate change already under way includes

receding mountain glaciers and decline in coral reefs in Africa;
receding mountain glaciers, and earlier leafing and fruit bearing of trees, in Europe;
permafrost degradation and decline in coral reefs in Asia;
shrinkage of mountain glaciers and reduced availability of water from mountain snowpack, and northward shifts of Atlantic fish in North America; and
shrinkage of mountain glaciers and increased Caribbean coral bleaching in Central and South America.

More generally, SPM states that both land species and water and ocean species are shifting their distribution ranges, migration patterns, abundances and ecological interactions in response to climate change.  Worldwide, climate change has caused crop yields to fall, especially for wheat and maize.

Socioeconomic effects of climate change depend importantly on the interplay of their vulnerability and their exposure.  Extreme events such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones and wildfires can lead to altered ecosystems, disrupted food and water supplies, damage to infrastructure, morbidity, mortality, and poor mental health.  SPM states there is “a significant lack of preparedness for current climate variability….”

Adaptation is entering into the consciousness of the public and policymakers.  SPM states “adaptation is becoming embedded in some planning processes, with more limited implementation of responses”.  Both governments and private sector entities are developing adaptation plans and policies, including incorporating adaptation contingencies into broader development plans. Examples of adaptation planning include

disaster risk management;
coastal and water management;
early warning systems;
adapting to sea level rise;
protection of energy and public infrastructure; and
conservation and agricultural product shifts.

Planning future adaptation strategies involves dealing with significant climate uncertainties in a changing background.  Effectiveness of strategies cannot be presently determined because risk management is subject to many interacting factors, long time ranges, and persisting uncertainties.  Repeated cycles of planning, implementing and assessment of adaptive and mitigating strategies are central to this process going forward.

Mitigation of future climate change and adaptation to future harms are closely interacting activities.  Depending on the stringency of worldwide mitigation actions taken, future impacts of warming can vary significantly during the second half of this century.  The severity of these effects in turn impacts how much adaptation will be needed. 

Future Sources of Risk

“Dangerous [manmade] interference with the climate system” (SPM) adversely affects the hazards to and vulnerability of societies and natural systems.  Possible perils include death, injury, ill health or affected livelihoods, degraded coastal regions, pressures on urban populations, loss of infrastructure services, mortality and morbidity from excessive heat, food scarcity and food insecurity, and degradation of marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

The extent of future warming will determine how severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts will be.  Scenarios in which emissions continue at a moderate to high rate risk causing significant future adverse effects such as

on freshwater resources and drought;
terrestrial species extinctions;
submergence and flooding of coastlines;
loss of marine biodiversity and fisheries productivity;
reduced crop yields for wheat, rice and maize in most regions;
lowered economic activity; and
poor human health. 

There is furthermore the risk of population displacements, civil war and inter-regional war, and effects on national security policies due to climate effects on infrastructure.

Adaptive measures should increase resilience to the harms of climate change.  Cross-disciplinary mechanisms for planning and implementation of adaptation measures are needed, at the international, national, regional, and local levels.  Potential problems can arise from constraints including insufficient funding, poor planning, and allocating investments between mitigation and adaptation.

Ideally successful planning will lead to climate-resilience and transformation.  Climate resilience results from combined implementation of adaptation and mitigation measures.  The process will rely on the repeated cycles of assessment and implementation described above, providing effective risk management over time.   Insufficient mitigation measures will result in the inability of adaptation measures to ward off the effects of warming.  The needed transformations include promoting human development (education, housing, etc.), reducing poverty, expanding social safety nets, enhancing ecosystem management, improving infrastructure and technology, implementing effective national policies for adaptation, and political and cultural actions to promote awareness.


The IPCC Assessment Reports have been warning of the need for mitigation since 1990.  Each of the four earlier assessment reports presented the case for mitigating emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) with successively greater urgency, and with increasing confidence arising from better information and advancing technology.  The resulting enhancements in climate science are reflected in the successive ARs.  This trend continues with 5AR; for example Part 2 considered here cites twice as many publications as its predecessor 7 years ago. 

The urgings in successive assessment reports to begin meaningful reductions in annual rates of emission of greenhouse gases reflect perfectly the meaning of the old saying, “a stitch in time saves nine”.  In other words, early repair of a (tailoring or climatic) defect involving minimal effort avoids the need for later extensive repair of the worsening defect that was left untended.

For example, the prominent climate scientist Thomas F. Stocker concluded in 2013  “…every year counts….  [The longer] the starting time of [a global mitigation program] is delayed, the [more] low [limiting temperature] targets are progressively lost.  The door for these climate targets closes irreversibly.”

As SPM makes clear, early potential mitigation steps not pursued inevitably lead to a need for adaptation to be undertaken, a need that would be far less urgent had mitigation been begun early.

An opportunity for effective global mitigation policy with the Kyoto Protocol (KP) was missed.  KP, setting achievable mitigation goals, was negotiated in 1997 under the UNFCCC; it entered into force in 2005 and expired in 2012.  The treaty crucially excludes developing countries from coverage, retaining only developed countries under its terms.  For this and other reasons the U. S. Senate did not ratify the treaty, so the U. S., the country with the highest GHG emission rate at the time, was not bound by its terms.  Covered nations pledged to reduce their annual emission rates by stated percentages by 2012.  Developing countries and the U. S., on the other hand, were free to continue unconstrained emissions.  During this interval China, now the nation with the highest annual emission rate, and India each increased their emission rates by about 160%, while the rate for the U. S. increased only 30%.

It is clear in hindsight that a critical opportunity for mitigating global GHG emissions was missed.  As a result the reasoned investments in mitigation urged by the IPCC assessment reports, and by Stocker and others, must now be made at a far more intense, and more demanding, rate of expenditure.

Such investments, considered at a global or regional economic scale, largely represent shifting of funds from new fossil fuel development into establishing new infrastructure for renewable energy.  In other words, these investments should be considered to involve funding that had been previously planned.

Adaptation strategies now must find new investment funding from scarce resources.  In contrast to shifting preexisting investment resources for mitigation, funding for adaptation indeed must be found from new, previously unallocated sources.  Consider Hurricane Sandy that struck the New Jersey-New York region in October 2012.  The damage estimate was US$71 billion.  The public ultimately pays this cost in the form of higher insurance premiums and higher taxes, both of which are expenses that previously did not exist and were not planned for.

New York City is responding to the damage caused by the hurricane by undertaking a massive adaptation program to enhance its resilience, valued at US$19.5 billion. An interactive map of cities and states of the U. S. shows their progress toward planning for adaptation. The United Nations estimates that globally adaptation expenditures could be  US$49 billion to US$171 billion a year through 2030.

Adaptation was recognized as an important aspect of the global warming issue at the UNFCCC conference in Cancun in 2010.  The conference established an adaptation fund to assist poorer nations of the world facing harms from global warming.  It was to achieve a contribution amount of US$100 billion/yr by 2020.  Of this, the U. S. was expected to contribute US$20-30 billion/yr. Unfortunately the U. S. has contributed only about US$2.5 billion/yr since 2010.


Worsening of planetary warming due to manmade emissions of GHGs is causing  the world to recognize that in addition to mitigation of emissions, adaptation to our changing climate is now needed.  Warming adversely affects human populations and natural ecosystems in ways that negatively impact human wellbeing.  These harms are expected to worsen as warming becomes more pronounced in coming decades.

Adaptation requires the investment of new money not previously allocated for this purpose.  The planning and implementing of adaptation measures explores uncharted paths, since the world has no previous experience in these matters.  Risks arise from uncertainties concerning effects of future warming and undetermined effects that adaptation measures will have.  Risk management therefore will require repeated cycles of planning and implementing adaptation measures, and assessing the efficacy of the resulting projects.  Conclusions drawn from the assessments will then be used to start the cycle over.  Effective adaptations should alleviate the harms from warming that affect human populations and our natural world.


Significance of IPCC Assessment Reports.  The 5AR, like its predecessors, is produced by a large, ecumenical group of hundreds of experts in their fields, and subjected to review by other experts and by appropriate governmental bodies before it is approved and accepted for release.  Technical details in the ARs are based only on peer-reviewed journal articles and reports produced by renowned nongovernmental organizations or government agencies.  The exhaustive review assures that the released report both represents the current state of scientific and technical expertise, on the one hand, and the points of view of governments of the IPCC, on the other. 

The steps involved in preparing the reports are summarized here, including details for the 30 chapters in Part 2 :

  1. Governments and organizations nominate authors, who are then selected by the organizers of the Working Groups (here called “Parts”)
  2. 745 authors and reviewers from over 100 countries were selected to prepare a first draft of Part 2, considering over 12,000 peer-reviewed scientific articles;
  3. The first draft was reviewed by 1,774 other experts who considered 19,598 comments;
  4. 2,631 expert reviewers prepared a second draft considering 28,544 comments;
  5. The second draft was reviewed by 1,271 experts from 67 countries, and by 33 governments;
  6. The final draft of the Summary for Policymakers was prepared by 241 reviewers from 45 governments, considering 2,350 comments; and
  7. The final draft was approved and accepted by the IPCC, and released.

As a result of this thorough drafting and review process, the ARs are rigorously objective.  The reader cannot seriously believe that the ARs offer prejudiced or directed findings or opinions. Indeed, the approval and acceptance process likely leads to consensus positions on unresolved or contentious issues while minimizing the importance granted outlying results or evaluations.
© 2014 Henry Auer

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