Sunday 20 October, 2019

Study finds investing in climate change will save money, lives

Photo courtesy: Professor Michael Taylor.

Photo courtesy: Professor Michael Taylor.

Professor Michael Taylor of The University of the West Indies (The UWI) is among an internationally respected group of scientists urgently calling on world leaders to accelerate efforts to tackle climate change.  The scientists are authors of a study published in Science which points out that almost every aspect of the planet’s environment and ecology is undergoing changes in response to climate change - some of which are profound, if not catastrophic for the future.

For Professor Taylor, Dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology at The UWI Mona, the response to climate change is high on the agenda.

“This is not an academic issue, it is a matter of life and death for people everywhere, as most recently evidenced in the Bahamas with the devastation caused by Hurricane Dorian.  People from small island states and low-lying countries are in the immediate cross-hairs of climate change. I am very concerned about the future for these people,” said Professor Taylor.

Professor Taylor’s contribution to the Science study demonstrates the effort by The UWI to lead global climate action. Earlier this year, the International Association of Universities (IAU) selected The UWI as its global leader in the mobilisation of research and advocacy for the achievement of a climate-smart world. 

Fellow Caribbean scientist and co-author of the study, Dr Adelle Thomas of The University of The Bahamas and Climate Analytics, says the recent devastation caused to the Bahamas by Hurricane Dorian was not a one-off. She says the caribbean region is vulnerable to the phenomenon. 

“The current catastrophe being faced by The Bahamas is not an isolated incident. As evidenced by the widespread devastation felt throughout the Caribbean in 2017, extreme events are becoming more intense and small island developing states are faced with addressing existential threats. There must be international coordination and transformational change to limit global warming.”

Meanwhile, the Science study suggests that reducing the magnitude of climate change is a good investment. 

Over the next few decades, acting to reduce climate change is expected to cost much less than the damage otherwise inflicted by climate change on people, infrastructure and ecosystems.

Lead author on the study, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg from the ARC Centre for Excellence in Coral Reef Studies at the University of Queensland in Australia, explains that “Acting on climate change has a good return on investment when one considers the damages avoided by acting. The investment is even more compelling given the wealth of evidence that the impacts of climate change are happening faster and more extensively than projected, even just a few years ago.  This makes the case for rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions even more compelling and urgent.”

Hoegh-Guldberg further explained the mismatch.  “First, we have underestimated the sensitivity of natural and human systems to climate change, and the speed at which these changes are happening.  Second, we have underappreciated the synergistic nature of climate threats—with the outcomes tending to be worse than the sum of the parts. This is resulting is rapid and comprehensive climate impacts, with growing damage to people, ecosystems, and livelihoods.” 

Professor Daniela Jacob, co-author and Director of Climate Services Centre (GERICS) in Germany is also concerned about these rapid changes - especially about unprecedented weather extremes.

 “We are already in new territory” said Professor Jacob, “The ‘novelty’ of the weather is making our ability to forecast and respond to weather-related phenomena very difficult.”

These changes are having major consequences. The paper updates a database of climate-related changes and finds that there are significant benefits from avoiding 2oC and aiming to restrict the increase to 1.5oC above pre-industrial global temperatures.

Professor Rachel Warren from the Tyndall Centre at the University of East Anglia in the UK assessed projections of risk for forests, biodiversity, food, crops and other critical systems, and found very significant benefits for limiting global warming to 1.5oC rather than 2oC. 

“The scientific community has quantified these risks in order to inform policy makers about the benefits of avoiding them,” Professor Warren stated. 

Since the Paris Agreement came into effect, there has been a race to quantify the benefits of limiting warming to 1.5oC so that policy makers have the best possible information for developing the policy required for doing it.

“If such policy is not implemented, we will continue on the current upward trajectory of burning fossil fuels and continuing deforestation, which will expand the already large-scale degradation of ecosystems. To be honest, the overall picture is very grim unless we act,” Professor Warren continued.

A recent report from the United Nations projected that as many as one million species may be at risk of extinction over the coming decades and centuries. Climate change is not the only factor but is one of the most important ones.

The urgency to act is further emphasized by the vulnerability of developing countries to climate change impacts as pointed out by Francois Engelbrecht, co-author and Professor of Climatology at the Global Change Institute of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.

“The developing African countries are amongst those to be affected most in terms of impacts on economic growth in the absence of strong climate change mitigation,” Professor Engelbrecht explains.

Professor Hoegh-Guldberg further reiterates the importance of the year 2020 in terms of climate action and the opportunity to strengthen emission reduction pledges in line with the Paris Agreement of 2015. 

“Current emission reduction commitments are inadequate and risk throwing many nations into chaos and harm, with a particular vulnerability of poor peoples. To avoid this, we must accelerate action and tighten emission reduction targets so that they fall in line with the Paris Agreement.  As we show, this is much less costly than suffering the impacts of 2oC or more of climate change.”

“Tackling climate change is a tall order. However, there is no alternative from the perspective of human well-being and too much at stake not to act urgently on this issue.”

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