Flooding in Lower Manhattan after super storm Sandy, 2012 (Photo: NorthAtlanticDivision Flickr Creative Commons 2.0)
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is meeting in Japan to release its latest report, on the impact of climate change on society and the planet. Penn State professor Michael Mann and host Steve Curwood discuss how the report anticipates that increased conflict and declining supplies of food and water lie ahead.
CURWOOD: From PRI and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Some 2,000 scientists from around the world help craft the periodic assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The reports have three sections: the first projects the rate of warming, the second forecasts the impact of the warming, and the final one looks at solutions to the emerging climate crisis. The first part of this latest and fifth assessment was released last fall, and it warned that humans are creating a much hotter world. Now the draft of second part is done, and it paints a grim picture of how climate disruption will affect nature and civilization. For some analysis, we turn to Michael Mann. He's a distinguished professor at Penn State University and author of “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars”. Welcome back to Living on Earth.
MANN: Thanks. It’s great to be with you.
CURWOOD: So this is the second part now of the current IPCC report dealing with the impacts of climate change. Take us through some of the highlights.
MANN: Sure. What this report tells us is sort of what we already knew, but it’s more affirmative than the previous report. Climate change, we can now say with confidence, is impacting us everywhere, and what the report shows is if we continue with fossil fuel burning, business as usual, we will see far greater and far more detrimental impacts in the future as far as the impact on human health, on food, agriculture, on fresh water availability. Climate change is already a threat to national security. There’s increased conflict, and we will see far more damaging impacts if we continue going down this road.
CURWOOD: Now, let’s talk about some of the particular impacts that were mentioned in this report. What about the link between violence and climate change? What can you tell us about that?
MANN: Well, we know, I mean, history tells us, that there’s a very strong linkage between competition for resources and conflict. That has always been true, for example, in the Middle East where there’s relatively little fresh water, and many researchers have argued the conflict that we see in the Middle East fundamentally relates to the battle for fresh water resources in that region, while climate change is going to worsen the fresh water problem. We will see prolonged and more intense droughts in most of the major continents, which is a threat to agriculture, to food, to human habitation. We are going to see increased competition from a growing global population competing for diminishing resources. That is, essentially, a perfect storm for intense conflict and threats to national security.
CURWOOD: This affects the whole planet. How do folks in the US come out?
MANN: Like folks in every other continent, it’s already clear that the impacts are damaging with respect to food, water and our economy. Hurricane Sandy, or Superstorm Sandy, cost us more than 65 billion dollars in losses here in the US. That’s a huge toll on our economy. And while we can’t say that Hurricane Sandy was literally caused by climate change, we know with some degree of confidence, that the impacts where made worse by climate change. For example, that 13-foot surge that flooded a large part of Manhattan, at least one of those 13 feet was due to human caused global warming. And so whether you look at impacts on extreme weather events, on drought, on the conditions that give us increased wildfire, we are already seeing climate change take a great toll on our economy here in the U.S., and it will only get worse.
CURWOOD: Where’s the worst place going to be in the world based on this current report? Who gets it the worst in terms of impacts?
MANN: It’s always difficult to say because there’s some level of uncertainty, but the fact is that in some regions, like the tropics, we will almost certainly see the worst impacts when it comes to issues like agriculture, for some very basic reasons. We know that even a little bit of warming in tropical regions leads to a very sharp decrease in agricultural productivity. We’ve seen that in recent years where extreme weather events have impacted food production and that has had negative repercussions for the global economy. We saw food prices spike due to extreme weather which we know, at least in part, is being impacted by climate change.
CURWOOD: What does the IPCC say about the impact on public health?
MANN: Well, public health, unfortunately, is one of those sectors where we may see some of the most profoundly negative impacts. There’s reason to believe that many extratropical regions that are currently immune to the effects of malaria because of killing frosts, cold winters...as those winters warm, as we see less of those killing frosts, we will see tropical diseases spread to higher latitudes; coastal flooding and extreme weather events create large amounts of standing water that is a health risk as well. One of the things that the report notes is that if we see seven degrees Fahrenheit warming of the planet, which is within range of the projections if we continue with business as usual fossil fuel burning, then many regions of the globe will literally be unlivable.
CURWOOD: So why might the public pay more attention to this report than others?
MANN: I think all too often we’ve allowed the picture of the polar bear stranded on a piece of ice up in the Arctic to be the poster child of human caused climate change and global warming. That has wrongly conveyed to the public that climate change is an exotic issue. I think what this report does effectively is to convey the fact that climate change is occurring now, it’s impacting us negatively where we live. So it’s actually somewhat remarkable to see a document like this, that by its nature is so conservative because it has to represent what a large number of scientists are all willing to commit to, actually state their findings in really such stark terms. When you read the description of the potential future impacts of climate change, you could be forgiven for mistaking this report for a post-apocalyptic plot that Hollywood had written about it.
The good news is that there is still time to act on this problem, and we have a critical decision to make. Are we going to mortgage the planet that we leave behind for our children or grandchildren, or are we going to take the actions that we need to now, so that decades from now we can look back and we can explain to our children and grandchildren that we saw the threat coming and we did act in time to avert catastrophe.
CURWOOD: Michael Mann is a distinguished professor at Penn State University. Thank you so much for taking the time today, Michael.
MANN: Thank you. It was a pleasure talking with you.
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