The New Face of Climate Change

Earlier this week, Fabio Scarano blogged about the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Today, Sanjayan shares his own take on the newest findings.

children in Madagascar

Children in Madagascar. (© Cristina Mittermeier)

According to the latest IPCC report, climate change will cause massive food shortages, put coastal communities at risk, destroy freshwater supplies and increase conflict worldwide. And the impact will not be evenly spread; those who can least afford it, in marginal crowded geographies, will suffer the most.

It’s enough to make you batten down the hatches and look for tips from the National Geographic Channel’s “Doomsday Preppers.” But I don’t look at it entirely that way.

The report finally puts a new face on climate change: ours. And that’s a change we need.

Just a few years ago, the “face” of climate change was a polar bear adrift on an ice floe, and the news was focused on predictions about temperature changes and melting glaciers in the Himalayas.

But as the new IPCC report reveals in no uncertain terms, climate change is no longer something that’s happening to wild animals in the distant future in a faraway place most of us will never visit. It’s us. It’s now. It’s happening to our land, impacting our food supplies, our water, our jobs, our security, our health and our way of life.

In an opening statement at the recent Japan meeting, IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri said, “Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by climate change.”

As frightening as this may be, the increasing relevance of the issue to more and more people makes it much more likely that we’ll do something about it.

That’s also the takeaway of “Years of Living Dangerously,” a groundbreaking new series set to debut April 13 on Showtime.

Over the past year, I joined a stellar cast of contributors and producers to examine how climate is impacting everyday lives, in the American heartland and around the world. My journey following climate scientists into the field took me to Maine, Hawaii, Christmas Island and the Andes. Other contributors such as Don Cheadle traveled to the baking desert of the American Southwest, while Harrison Ford examined logging in Indonesia and Tom Friedman reported from the water-starved Middle East.

By bringing climate change “home” and using human-interest stories to capture its impacts, this series holds significant promise to encourage the public to take action — exactly what the new IPCC report does. I’m glad to see that many of us tasked with communicating about climate change seem to be moving in the same direction.

flooded house in Colombia

Local boy wades through water to get to his flooded house near Santa Marta, Colombia. (© Robin Moore/iLCP)

Reading the IPCC report, you’ll notice another shift — one toward adaptation to a changing climate. For some this might herald bad news. Have we given up on reducing emissions? Isn’t adaptation basically rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship?

Not from my standpoint.

Conserving energy has worked remarkably well and has had a massive impact. A few months ago, another report — this one by the International Energy Agency (IEA) — was released to far less fanfare that the IPCC report, perhaps because it spelled out good news.

The IEA report detailed how much energy has been saved by investing in energy efficiency and retrofitting. Compared with the 1970s, the amount of “avoided energy” saved each year is equivalent to about two-thirds of current annual consumption — almost as much as the combined global output of oil, gas and coal.

Put another way, without improving energy efficiency, we would have had to double our use of oil, gas and coal simply to maintain current use.

This massive savings did not come automatically. Since the 1970s, our global society has invested heavily in energy efficiency. How much? Well, in 2011 we invested over US$ 300 billion in energy efficiency — equivalent to worldwide investment in oil, gas and coal combined. In China alone, energy efficiency investments went from zero in 2005 to $12 billion by 2010.

Unfortunately, our global investment in adaptation is paltry by comparison. In some countries like the U.K. it has actually gone down in recent years! In the U.S., shaken by the drought that has gripped California and the American Southwest, President Obama recently called for $1 billion in climate adaptation funds. It’s unclear if he will get it.

Without early investments in adaptation, we will miss a huge opportunity to blunt the worst impacts of climate change. If this happens, we will have the full blame of future generations to bear.

One of the factors that spurred such rapid growth in energy efficiency investments was the return on investment that accrued at the national and individual levels. Thanks to more efficient appliances, cities could cut smog while individuals paid less in electricity bills. Everybody won.

A similar argument could be made for ecosystem-based adaptation, which my colleague Fabio Scarano highlighted in a blog earlier this week.

Protecting and restoring mangroves and coral reefs not only protects cities from tropical cyclones and sea surge but also provides food, fuelwood and nurseries for sustainable fisheries. Setting up funding to secure watersheds for hydroelectricity or flood control provides a host of secondary benefits, from ecotourism to clean drinking water.

Replanting degraded forests not only soaks up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it also generates rain and — when managed sustainably — provides building materials, edible plants and other forest products. Floodplains not only absorb runoff from monster storms but also act as habitat for waterfowl, and support huge fisheries.

Here’s the bottom line: Our investment in energy efficiency is paying off. We need to invest similarly in adaptation now, and use nature as a guide to maximize our returns.

M. Sanjayan is an executive vice president and senior scientist at CI.


  1. Carl Page says

    Great article. There is clearly no time left to be irrationally anti-nuclear power. Fewer people have died in the entire history of nuclear power than from one year of oil and coal power’s air pollution. ANd the climate bill tilts the balance further.
    Wind and solar are great. WE need all three.

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