April 28, 2013 in MDG 7 (Sustainability)
Ashley discusses the unknown future of climate change and how development policy must take this into account.
Climate change and environmental sustainability are some of the newest and most discussed international development issues. They are inherently complex and interdependent problems that will require long-term, cooperative solutions between all countries.
Cooperation has been a challenge, during the many conferences and policy meetings, both on the international and national scales. Tensions exist between what science says should be done and what can be politically agreed upon to slow the temperature rise. These tensions have been attributed to national interests taking priority and a commitment to economic growth that is seen as incompatible with carbon reduction initiatives.
Perhaps a more determining factor that has limited cooperation is the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence being discussed. There are multiple interpretations predicting the effects of greenhouse gas emissions will have in the future. Policy makers don’t know how to translate this constant and evolving stream of information into coherent policy initiatives. There is just no firm consensus to what can and should be done
Recently, The Economist proposed that the warming globe might be less due to human activity than previously stated in the widely cited IPCC 4th assessment report. The article triggered an immediate rebuttal by the Center for International Forestry research, arguing that this information was based on incomplete information and a misinterpretation of longitudinal temperature datasets.
This information came just months after an article proposing that not only are particular fuel particles, known as ‘black carbon’, the principle driver of climate change, but that they are even more consequential than previously thought due to their super heat-trapping abilities. From this point of view, mitigation is even more of a policy priority.
There is also the highly anticipated IPCC 5th Assessment Report due out next year. Preliminary drafts and coverage of the report anticipate that new models predicting the effects of rising temperatures will show more conservative changes than previously published. This seems to be consistent with recent research findings that past projection models have overshot actual near surface temperatures until 2010. Whether these changes are anthropogenic (caused by humans) is still unclear.
Perhaps these examples don’t demonstrate conflicting evidence, but illustrate the dynamic nature of earth temperatures and the complex interplay of the world and its inhabitants that we have yet to fully understand. I personally am not convinced that this means we are any closer to understanding how the earth’s cycle works and which stage of it we currently live in.
A level of acceptance of uncertainty is needed. Although we are responsible for the carbon emissions in the air, and to a certain extent, can control how much is emitted, we cannot be certain which carbon particles affect the globe the most and to what extent. Mitigating climate change should still be a priority, but an expectation of a world that will most likely look different from the one we live in today should be the premise that we work from. We don’t have all the answers or knowledge and we need to accept this.
We should move beyond trying to make policy based on particular projections and specific pictures of the effects of a rise in 1°C will be and accept the unknown. We don’t know what will happen, what it will look like, or how people who are currently in their youth will live in the future. One thing is for certain, adaptation is imminent, and should be treated as such.
I was relieved to see that adaptation was a big priority in My World 2015 survey. It recognised that we have moved beyond depending on mitigation solutions to live in the future and toward the area of uncertainty where we should prepare the most vulnerable countries, their futures and young people for a world that may possibly (but we are unsure) look very different from the one we live in today.