Climate change - not just about blueberries

  • 26 Jan 2012, 18:00
  • Christian Hunt & Robin Webster

It is a truth often acknowledged (in certain sections of the media) that we don't need to worry about climate change, because we can 'just adapt' to whatever happens.

The trouble with this argument is that often it is just way of saying 'we should do nothing', without actually coming out and saying that.

Well, a bumper report from DEFRA out today begins to map out what the logic of that argument entails. The ' UK Climate Change Risk Assessment' is the 2,000 page culmination of a 3-year project looking at what might happen in the UK as a result of climate change - both positive and negative. Primarily aimed at government departments, its production was a legal requirement under the 2008 Climate Change Act and its aim is to inform what action the Government takes to reduce the risks and seize the biggest opportunities.

There are plenty of uncertainties in the report, and plenty of the predictions are made with low or medium certainty. But there are also clear warnings, made with high confidence, about changes which will have a significant impact on the UK in the near future.

There is 'high confidence' that there will be 'high negative consequences' from changes in flooding patterns as soon as the 2020s, for example. There is also high confidence that agricultural land is going to be threatened by flooding and coastal erosion, and that keeping people cool in cities is going to get more difficult.

Probably the clearest message in the report is over flooding, where there are some fairly startling figures. For example - in England and Wales, damage costs from flooding are currently 1.2 billion per annum. By the 2020s this will have risen to between 1.5 and 2.5 bn (high confidence). By the 2050s, the cost will be between 1.8 bn and 6.8 bn, and by the 2080s between 2bn and 12bn.

So by the 2080s the annual economic impacts of flooding in this country will rise by, at the least, 80%, and at the most, 1000%.

But what about the positives? Predictably, the Daily Mail's reportage of Defra's findings rather enjoy these - focusing cheerily on predictions of "fresher blueberries, plentiful fish and fewer winter deaths" - the "unforeseen upside" of global warming (in fact, the url of the Mail article gives a pretty good clue as to where they are coming from on all this, reading as it does: Imagine-grazing-blueberries-fresh-plaice-warm-winters-Global-warming-doesnt-sounds-bad.html)

The report does suggest that there will be between 5,000 to 24,000 fewer premature deaths from cold as winters get warmer, although it also notes that without measures to alleviate problems by the 2050s there will be an extra 1,000 to 6,000 premature deaths per year due to hotter summers. Even though the report notes that there is less confidence in the projection for winter deaths, you could sum that up as a plus.

There are also predictions that "Warmer conditions would be more favourable to the cultivation of less common crops such as blueberries and miscanthus and new crops not currently grown in this country." and that "Rising sea temperatures may result in some species of fish (e.g. plaice and sole) becoming more abundant in UK waters, offering new fishing away from current fishing ground"

Overall however, UKCRR does not paint a picture of pros cancelling cons. The report also concludes that UK water resources are projected to come under increased pressure - with 27-59 million people in the UK living in areas affected by supply-demand deficits by the 2050s (based on existing population levels); and sensitive ecosystems that are already threatened by land use changes may come under increased pressure. The report says that:

"The impacts on species may have knock- on affects on habitats, ecosystem function and the goods and services humans receive. Whilst some species would benefit from these changes, many more would suffer...there may be tipping points in land, aquatic and marine ecosystems that have major and possibly irreversible changes, which we currently know little about"

In assessing the question of positive vs benefits, the following table from the report lays it out reasonably clearly:

Screen Shot 2012-01-26 At 15.25.56

Opportunities are labelled green; threats pink to read - and the level of darkness indicates the level of certainty. Although some may focus on the positive, the chart makes it pretty clear that they do not predominate.

So what does this all mean for the UK Government response? The report's findings are based on Defra's "UKCPO9" climate projections, which projects a range of changes in the UK climate over this century, accounting for both natural variability and the "uncertain response of regional climates to global warming". Interestingly, although the future trajectory of emissions is uncertain, the report says that

"...the range of plausible emissions scenarios does not significantly affect the range of possible UK climate changes until the latter part of the 21st Century, because the different emissions pathways do not start to diverge until mid-Century in terms of their effects on temperature rise."

So cutting emissions is important, but what we do now in terms of mitigation may have more impact on the latter part of this century than in the first half.

What the report does underline is that adaptation is clearly very important. Many of the negative impacts can presumably be hedged against by taking sensible steps now - although on the issue of flood risk, this will mean government spending significant amounts of money on an ongoing basis.

The report also points out that potential climate risks in other parts of the world are much greater than they are in the UK. In terms of impacts, the impacts of a changing global climate on global health, global politics, migration, and international supply chains could be as important for the UK as the direct effects of climate change.

So even if some 'skeptics' like to portray adaptation as the easier, cheaper and more sensible alternative to cutting emissions, reports like this make it clear that adaptation is an additional necessity, not an alternative, response to the challenges of climate change.

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