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Warming at a much faster rate

Thursday, December 17, 2009

WITH talks focussed on carbon emission into the atmosphere and images of dry barren landscapes of formerly thriving agricultural basins or kilometres of dead coral reefs circulating with climate change-related materials, the tendency is to limit climate change impacts to physical manifestations only.

But climate change is really about the "invisible to the naked eye" as it is about heat stored at the surface of the earth and the transport of this heat.

So someone would be warmer in Copenhagen than someone sitting in Liberia or Canada albeit being on the same latitude, because the ocean currents transport heat this way.

What no one is saying loud enough is that 85 per cent of the change in the phrase "climate change" is taking place in the oceans.

In a warm tropical climate, it is also difficult to even contemplate an ocean that is getting warmer. But it is, and research in the past five years, a report of which was made available at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP15 meeting in Denmark, says it is also warming at a much faster rate than scientists first believed it was.

For Fiji and other island nations where the majority of the population are coastal dwellers, this essentially means that if nothing is done to legally obligate major polluters to control their CO2 emissions, the coral reefs that fed generations for centuries, will die.

And when the coral reefs die, it does not only translate to coastal people losing an essential food source but we are also talking about a fatal impact on the last surviving fish stock in the world, assuming that over-fishing, illegal and unsustainable fishing methods do not wipe out our tuna stocks first.

Professor Katherine Richardson of the University of Copenhagen explains the process very simply: with increased CO2 in the ocean's surface (an inevitable situation when the atmosphere is in contact with the ocean's surface perpetually), the water gets acidic, killing the natural process of nutrients and sunlight "making" fish food.

"So we expect there to be less fish food and we expect there to be less fish," Richardson said.

"Put on top of that the fact that in, not least of which around Fiji, coral reefs are very important for fisheries, organisms such as corals that make calcium carbonate are extremely sensitive.

"My point is fisheries that are dependent on coral reefs will be very heavily impacted by this, this is one of the things that is very often overlooked."

The UNFCCC negotiations are primarily informed by the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The last report was in 2007 and while it was going through the normal stringent reviews, research continued to be conducted. Post-IPCC findings were then published after a gathering of 2500 scientists in March this year, in Copenhagen.

Chaired by Richardson, the gathering not only confirmed findings by the IPCC but that the rate of global warming was much faster than anticipated.

The IPCC Forth Assessment Report projects sea level-rise by 0.19 to 0.58 metres that will "exacerbate inundation, erosion and other coastal hazards, threaten vital infrastructure settlements and facilities and thus compromise the socio-economic well-being of island communities and states".

The report noted that more than 50percent of Pacific populations live within 1.5 kilometres of the shore and all major roads, capital cities and airports are along the coast. There is acknowledgement of food security issues such as the increasing dependency on imported food.

The IPCC predicts as well that reduced rainfall and saline increases of freshwater tables spell imminent water shortage for certain island nations.

"Some things are moving faster, the rate of heating in the ocean is moving faster.

"The ocean is warming much faster than initially anticipated and the rate of sea-level rise is moving faster as well," Richardson said.

The report entitled Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges and Decisions has six main messages:

* Climatic trends are painting a faster rate of environment degradation than initially anticipated

* Social and environmental disruptions analysis show that societies and ecosystems are highly vulnerable to even modest levels of change and temperature rising above two per cent "are likely to cause major societal and environmental disruption through the rest of the century and beyond"

* Long-term strategies must be global and there has to be timeframes in order to avoid "dangerous climate change"

* Equity dimensions discusses how important equitable mitigation strategies are and how it would help if tackling climate change was seen as "integral to the broader goals of enhancing socioeconomic development and equity throughout the world" that

* Inaction is inexcusable considering that the world has an array or tools and approaches to either minimise or even halt the CO2 emission race, and in

* Meeting the challenge, constraints must be seriously addressed critical opportunities seized and in linking climate change to broader sustainable consumption and production concerns, human rights issues and democratic values are crucial for shifting societies toward more sustainable development pathways.

The report makes specific reference to the role cultures, values and the world's perspectives as factors in responding to climate change.

"Local religious and spiritual beliefs, knowledge systems, understanding of nature-society relationships, and values and ethics influence how individuals and communities perceive and respond to climate change," the reports says. "Climate change science must recognise these local and indigenous cultural and experimental contexts and try to relate to them when fostering societal mitigation and adaptation activities."

Richardson said the good news was that "we know what to do and we have the technology to do it".

"There are many ways of dealing with it.

"What we must do is get started but we are missing political and public will.

"We have the knowledge and we are more certain about our science than we are about going to war."

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