Royal Society response to UN climate report

31 March 2014

Today saw the release of the Working Group II Summary for Policymakers from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), entitled 'Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.' More information about the report can be found on the IPCC website.

Commenting on the report, Professor Georgina Mace FRS, Professor of Biodiversity and Ecosystems at University College London and Chair of the Royal Society Working Group on Human Resilience to Climate Change and Disasters said:

“The Working Group II report builds on the Working Group I report issued last year. WGI showed strong evidence for anthropogenic climate change and how this could unfold over this century. Climate change matters to people and societies primarily through the impacts it has on the environment and the weather, especially the intensity and variability over time of changes to heat and rainfall, and the impacts these have on our life support systems – a secure supply of food and freshwater, good health, security of life and livelihoods. This report examines these risks in order to support policy-making to reduce them.

“Early, proactive adaptation is likely to be more effective than later, reactive responses and more likely to enhance resilience as well as reducing risk. Because we are not well adapted now, dealing with current crises in an incremental manner may distract from making the substantial changes to infrastructure, food, water and energy systems that will be necessary. Also, in an uncertain environment, being able to learn while doing may be safer and cheaper, and reduce the risks of maladaptation. Enhancing resilience – the ability to withstand future shocks and stresses - is a step beyond adaptation and especially important to reduce the widening variation in risks and opportunities for people in different areas of the world. Recent progress in development in parts of Asia and Africa could stall if risks to large numbers of poor and vulnerable people are not averted.”

Professor Paul Bates, Professor of Hydrology & Head of the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol and member of the Royal Society Working Group on Human Resilience to Climate Change and Disasters said:

“This new report makes clear that the effects of climate change over the coming decades will be far reaching and will affect almost every aspect of our lives from food production, health, the economy to the environment.  At the same time a growing global population that is increasingly urbanized and interconnected is making society more vulnerable and less resilient.  There is also good evidence that climate-related hazards hit those living in poverty the hardest.

“A very important point made by the report is that reducing our exposure to current climate threats is a critical first step towards mitigating or adapting to future climate change. Current climate and its variability already pose very significant risks, of which the recent UK floods are a clear example.  Coping with current threats is actually the first step in preparing for the future. We have good evidence that spending on disaster prevention is much more cost effective than spending on disaster clean up.  This is a classic ‘no regrets’ strategy that can improve livelihoods and well being now and in the future.

“Whilst there are uncertainties associated with future climate change impacts, this report demonstrates an overwhelming scientific consensus about what we do, and do not, know well.  Good statistical tools now exist to characterize uncertainty in future climate projections and to take optimal decisions given this imprecise knowledge.  We are moving to a situation where we know more about future climate changes than we do about possible future societal changes and their impact on vulnerability, and that this needs to be a focus of work in the coming years."

Dr Bhaskar Vira, Director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute and member of the Royal Society Working Group on Human Resilience to Climate Change and Disasters said:

“One key message from this report is that the consequences of climate change will be very unequally distributed across the planet, with impacts likely to enhance the vulnerability of the most marginalised groups. The risks are particularly acute for those who are already in poverty, and will further undermine already stressed livelihood options for these populations, increase their exposure to hazards and negatively impact food security.

“The debate over climate change has to be sensitive to these distributional issues, as a focus on aggregate outcomes at a global scale usually hides these differentiated impacts. Our moral compass needs to focus on the injustice that results from the unequal exposure of people around the world to the risks of climate change, caused by the actions and lifestyles of those at the opposite end of the income distribution (both in their own countries, and internationally).

“A major collective effort from decision makers acting at local, national and global scales is needed to address the grossly unfair allocation of resources in relation to adaptive capacity, and the lack of adequate social protection and insurance measures in those parts of the world that have the largest populations at risk.”

The Royal Society report on Human Resilience to Climate Change and Disasters, to be completed later in 2014, will examine the actions that can reduce risk and enhance resilience. These include a range of engineered, technical, social, institutional and ecosystem-based solutions.