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Our Common Future under Climate Change


Most impressive things at the recent climate science conference in Paris was the breadth of scientific knowledge covered.  I met biologists, physicists, climatologists, economists, oceanographers, psychologists and more.  In all, around 2,000 scientists from 100 countries were discussing the latest research on every aspect climate change.  I have picked just a few of the talks I attended:

How species respond to climate change

There was a really interesting discussion on how species respond to climate change. Essentially, species have three options – they can either move, adapt, or die.

For marine species, moving north or south to cooler waters or to deeper water is generally relatively easy, but terrestrial species have more geographical constraints to contend with such as mountain ranges or cities.

Baby orang-utan © Edward Parker / WWFBaby orang-utan © Edward Parker / WWF

Models that predict where animals may move to in order to survive a changing climate can work well if the system is affected only by temperature, but the real world is often more complex.  In many places other pressures on wildlife are dominant such as water scarcity, food supplies or predators, for example.  There was the suggestion that conservation efforts will need to shift from current approaches to conserve animals in situ to a new approach that will allow the migration of animal populations to more suitable places.

This area of research poses interesting questions for us and our conservation efforts – and we will continue to use such external and internal research to inform our work over the coming years.  During the conference the Grantham Institute for Climate Change Research published a useful policy brief on climate change and challenges for conservation.

Climate change and sustainable development

Smoke containing sulphur dioxide belching from the chimney of a nickel foundry at Norilsk, Western Siberia, Russia © naturepl.com / Bryan and Cherry Alexander / WWFSmoke containing sulphur dioxide belching from the chimney of a nickel foundry at Norilsk, Western Siberia, Russia © naturepl.com / Bryan and Cherry Alexander / WWF

Ahead of the major UN Conference on post-2015 development in September, there were also sessions on links between climate change and sustainable development.  Indeed, the conference name “Our Common Future” echoes the Brundtland Report of nearly 30 years ago which defined sustainable development.

Thomas Stocker – Co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) working group on the physical science basis – noted that “climate change is a threat to sustainable development…not to address it will make achieving many Sustainable Development Goals impossible.”

Many scientists highlighted the advantage of linking climate change and development to achieve greater policy coherence and to ensure that the post-2015 development and the UN climate change processes are mutually supportive.  This will be especially important when it comes to implementation (in the UK and elsewhere).

Ocean acidification

East coast shore of the Pacific Ocean, Gisborne, New Zealand © Stéfane Mauris / WWFEast coast shore of the Pacific Ocean, Gisborne, New Zealand © Stéfane Mauris / WWF

The world’s oceans absorb around a third of the carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere each year.  While this keeps atmospheric concentrations and hence warming lower than it would otherwise be, it leads to increasing ocean acidification at the surface.

A more acidic environment makes life more difficult for marine species with skeletons and shells which are made of calcium carbonate.  I saw research on pteropods (tiny, clear, snail-like creatures) that are extreme sensitivity to ocean acidification as it makes their shells deteriorate and dissolve.  These tiny creatures are important to the food chain and so can be used to monitor marine health.

How to communicate the science of climate change

The psychology of climate change and how to communicate it looks like a fruitful area of research at both the local and international level.

UK-based behaviour-change research presented at the conference showed that small nudges and better ways of communicating climate change can make big differences.

For example showing people thermal imaging of the hot and cold spots of their own homes encouraged greater take-up of household energy savings measures than either a photo of a generic house or just plain text.

A thermal image of a house © National Geographic Stock/Tyrone Turner/WWFA thermal image of a house © National Geographic Stock/Tyrone Turner/WWF

With energy efficiency measures being one of the most effective ways of reducing domestic greenhouse gas emissions, this research could help persuade individuals to cut their emissions and reduce their heating bills.

The message from the science community to international climate negotiations remains clear and largely unchanged: we humans are causing the warming of the climate

While arguably we didn’t need another conference to tell us this, what is clearer is that for many issues such as ocean acidification, sea-level rise, and temperature-related species range-changes, the only option is immediate and significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

The scientific community has really done all it can to explain the changes we are making to our atmosphere and to inform the international negotiators of the need to tackle climate change. The 2,000 experts present sent another clear message to the Paris negotiators: “science is a foundation for smart decisions at COP21 and beyond”.

Now it is high time that our world leaders and their negotiators not only listened, but acted on this information.

You can find many of the scientific presentations from the conference here and details of our Climate and Energy work here.

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