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Martin Parry

30 September 2008
Martin Parry

In September 2008, The Climate Group spoke with Martin Parry on the subject of climate science. Parry is co-chair of the IPCC's Working Group II on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. A visiting professor in environmental science at Imperial College, he has been a lead author in the IPCC's past four impact assessment reports.

And he is concerned - about what he sees as a "false optimism" among business leaders and policy-makers about the world's timeframe, and capacity, to tackle climate change. The reality, he contends, is that the impacts we face are bigger than we think. They will happen sooner than we think. And we stand in real danger - in policy and action - of falling far short of what needs to be done.

What are the most immediate climate impacts that we face?

Closest on the horizon - indeed probably occurring now - are firstly increasing storms and floods in the humid tropics, and secondly increasing drought in the semi-arid tropics. The past few years of drought in Australia are likely due partly to global warming. The most important consequences of these impacts will be increased water shortage, reduced food supply and increased flooding of coastal settlements.

The IPCC assessment reports have done a tremendous job establishing the scientific consensus on human-induced climate change. Yet in 2007 the rise in C02 emissions was already out pacing the IPCC's worst-case scenario. What does this mean? And what might we expect to see in future IPCC analyses?

Greenhouse gas emissions are accelerating, in spite of current efforts. Its effects, the IPCC has concluded, are occurring faster than we previously expected. We see this, for example, in the melting of the Arctic and the reduction in glaciers. This means we need to act more strongly and more urgently than we previously had planned.

The next IPCC assessment (which is planned for 2013) is likely to reveal climate effects beyond observed changes in the physical environment - in ice cover, in the distribution of plants and animals - which we have already seen. The next assessment is likely to show climate effects in the human-managed environment. We will start seeing impacts in food production and in water availability.

In the run-up to the UNFCCC meeting in Copenhagen 2009, world leaders are now engaging in crucial dialogues toward a global deal on climate change. These talks are the world's best - maybe only - chance to effectively tackle climate change. Are leaders aware of, and do they understand, the reality that we face, as you outline it here?

I think there remains a complacent, and incorrect, belief that we can take our time and slowly but steadily achieve international action. In reality we need agreed action within the next two years, in order to start cutting emissions globally within the next ten years. It will take a huge effort to stem the rise in emissions and to then turn the trend downwards.

What technically needs to be done to deal with climate change?

We need to cut emissions by 80 per cent (on 1990 levels) globally by 2050 to avoid major damage. A 50 per cent reduction in emissions will not avoid major damage and would need to be accompanied by costly adaptation.

An 80 per cent reduction will require large increases in efficiency in our use of energy, and especially the transfer of new energy technology to developing countries. A big push to convert to renewables is needed, as well as to nuclear energy - at least as an interim measure - to fill the "clean" energy gap.

The mitigation measures will demand large-scale investment. Given limited resources, how should we weigh demands for mitigation vis-a-vis demands for investment in adaptive measures?

We cannot avoid all climate damages; some are occurring even now. Therefore we must also invest in adaptation - for example, drought-proofing crops by breeding varieties that do well in drier conditions, especially in Africa. A balance between investment in reducing emissions - mitigation - and investment in adaptation is very important.

Adaptation has, to date, been given too little attention because it has been deemed as "defeatist". We need to square up to reality and admit our need to adapt to climate change that cannot be avoided.

We all know that that we have limited window of time left to tackle climate change effectively. There are even those, like the UK's James Lovelock, who say it's already too late. You know the science. Give us a time frame. What time - and what opportunity - do we have left to avoid dangerous temperature rise?

We have left things very late, and consequently we need to take rapid, large and difficult actions. But we have the know-how and the ability to turn things around. What we need from ourselves is the will to do it, and from our leaders the courage to take the lead.

What is crucial is to achieve international agreement on action in the next two years - and then to implement that action over the next ten years.

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