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Impacts of Climate Change Coming Sooner and Faster

Impacts of Climate Change Coming Sooner and Faster
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At a special United Nations summit on climate change September 22, world leaders acknowledged both the quickening pace of global warming and the world community's slow response to it. In December, international negotiators will meet in Copenhagen to decide on a new U.N. treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, the climate change agreement that expires in 2012. In advance of that meeting, the United Nations Environment Program [UNEP] has released a new science report that underscores the urgency of the situation and the need for governments to act.

The UNEP report presents scientific evidence that has emerged since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its last report in 2007. The "Climate Change Science Compendium" affirms that climate change is accelerating faster than previous estimates. UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner says evidence of human-generated warming is "unequivocal" and "just in time for us to appreciate how the magnitude of change, the scale of change and the pace of change are in fact occurring."

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Findings from some 400 peer-reviewed studies from scientific journals and research institutes are woven into the report's chapters on earth systems, ecosystems, ice, oceans and climate management. The data show that global carbon emissions - which rose 1.1 percent from 1990 to 1999 - climbed 3.5 percent from 2000-2007.

Rapid glacier-melt, sea-level rise and ocean acidification will become complex problems, Steiner says, in a world whose population is expected to grow to nine billion people by 2050. "And herein lies another vital message in the report," he says. "When we talk about management, essentially we need to take the science that we now have at our disposal and think about how we are going to manage in response to these developments."

The UNEP report reflects the growing concern among scientists that warming temperatures above two degrees Celsius could trigger increasingly rapid climate change. The report says sea levels could rise by up to two meters by 2100, and rise at five to ten times that rate over following centuries. Other likely scenarios include dramatic changes to the Indian sub-continent's monsoon, the West African and Saharan monsoons and climate systems affecting critical ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest.

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Steiner says these scientific predictions are legitimate cause for public alarm. "If the glaciers in the Himalayas really do melt over the next 30 or 40 years to the extent that is now projected, it means hundreds of millions of people having to adapt to an entirely new hydrological cycle."

But, Steiner believes the world community has the scientific knowledge and the technical know-how to develop strategies to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. He says in the last year China has advanced "the largest green [stimulus] package in the world." He cites Brazil's energy networks as "the cleanest of any country on this planet." And he says Germany "has managed to go from 2 percent renewable energy in less than 15 years to 15 percent."

The head of the U.N.'s Environment Program says immediate and decisive action is needed to cut industrial carbon emissions and help vulnerable countries adapt to climate change. Achim Steiner says an informed public must push government leaders to do what makes sense for the planet.