Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Key Themes: Climate Change

The 'Key Themes' posts are a series of short articles outlining the role that geologists have in various aspects of global development.

Research into climate change and its impacts on communities across the world is currently being done by many institutions across the world, and eagerly awaited and examined by NGOs and government agencies. It is perhaps one of the biggest issues in this generation, with huge questions such as - what can we do, and how will it effect us?

Climate Change: Fact or Fiction?

There is significant scientific evidence that suggests that human induced climate change is a reality. There are natural fluctuations in the earth’s climate (leading to ice-ages etc)… however research suggests fairly conclusively that humans are accelerating climate change through the release of various emissions.

The Geological Society of London has released a briefing document outlining the geological evidence; this is aimed at non-specialists as well as geologists. It is available to read here. Geologists play a significant role in understanding past climates, and the patterns that occur over time. This understanding of the past aids the modelling of future climatic conditions and the impact changes may have.

How is climate change related to international development?

It is generally accepted that the carbon-footprints of people in developed countries are significantly greater than the carbon-footprints of people in developing countries. The UN has suggested that the world’s poorest produce a small fraction of the world’s greenhouse gases – as the graph below indicates.

From: http://unstats.un.org/unsd/environment/air_co2_emissions.htm

Yet research also suggests that the effects and impacts of climate change will disproportionately affect the poor – that the poorest are the ones least able to deal with environmental change. Global warming, as well as changing temperatures, will lead to:
·      Higher sea levels and flooding of low-lying coasts
·      Changed patterns of rainfall
·      Increased ocean acidity
·      Decreased oxygen levels in the oceans

Adapting to these effects requires significant investment, well beyond the means of many developing countries. A publication by the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (Postnote No. 269, 2006) suggests developing countries would have to deal with the following environmental impacts:
·      Changes in rainfall patterns
·      Increased frequency and severity of floods, droughts, storms and heat waves
·      Changes in growing seasons and regions
·      Changes in water quality and quantity
·      Sea level rises
·      Melting of Glaciers

These impacts are likely to have result in changes to water resources, agriculture, human health, infrastructure, food security, settlements and natural disaster planning.

What role do geologists have to play in this sector?

As previously outlined geologists play a significant role in modelling the impacts of future climatic conditions and impacts through their research into palaeoclimate. Geologists also have a role in both understanding how climate changes will impact on several key areas, and what can be done to adapt/mitigate/reduce the impacts within these areas. A few examples of such key areas are listed below:

Groundwater: As global warming develops, how will this affect supply of groundwater and the quality of groundwater? How will sea-level rises change the salinity of coastal aquifers? The British Geological Survey are undertaking researching into questions such as these, you can read about the likely impact on groundwater supplies in Africa here.

Coastal Flooding & Erosion: Modelling of flooding, as a result of increase in sea levels is being done, as is an examination of how climate change will impact coastal erosion. Both of these can result in a loss of settlement and livelihoods – potentially driving problems in food and water security.

Natural Disasters: The effects of climate change on disasters ranging from floods and droughts, to wildfires and storms, to earthquakes and tsunamis is not altogether understood. Research indicates an increase in the unpredictability of rainfall in terms of intensity and duration – increasing the frequency of extreme droughts and floods. This post, written in February, highlights how historical changing of climate resulted in extremely severe droughts. 

Geologists also have a key role in ensuring that decisions made in this field are made on the basis of good science. A lot of processes are being attributed to climate change with very little or no scientific evidence. Climate change adaptations and work in communities to build resilience should be done on the basis of a thorough understanding of the area and science - otherwise they could increase vulnerability and do more harm than good. Climate change should be put in its proper context, alongside the various other hazards and vulnerabilities that communities face.