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Confronting Climate Change: Avoiding the unmanagable and managing the unavoidable, a Sigma-Xi report


Helping the United Nations Make a Difference

Confronting Climate Change: Avoiding the unmanagable and managing the unavoidable, a Sigma-Xi report

The imminence and severity of the problems posed by the accelerating changes in the global climate are becoming increasingly evident. Heat waves are becoming more severe, droughts and downpours are becoming more intense, the Greenland Ice Sheet is shrinking and sea level is rising, and the increasing acidification of the oceans is threatening calcifying organisms. The environment and the world’s societies are facing increasing stress.

There is growing recognition of the complex scientific and technical issues related to climate change and sustainable development. The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, adopted in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, requested that the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) “[g]ive greater consideration to the scientific contributions to sustainable development through, for example, drawing on the scientific community.”

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), in its role as Secretariat to the CSD, seeks to facilitate contributions by the scientific community to the work of the Commission. Accordingly, DESA invited Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society, to convene an international panel of scientific experts to prepare a report outlining the best measures for mitigating and adapting to global warming for submission to the CSD.

To carry out this task, the Scientific Expert Group on Climate Change and Sustainable Development (SEG) was formed and comprises 18 distinguished international scientists. The panel was asked to consider innovative approaches for mitigating and/or adapting to projected climate changes, and to anticipate the relationship of response measures to sustainable development.

Highlights of the resulting report include:

  • To avoid entering a regime of sharply rising danger of intolerable impacts on humans, policy makers should limit temperature increases from global warming to 2 to 2.5°C above the 1750 pre-industrial level. It is still possible to avoid unmanageable changes in the future, but the time for action is now.
    • Temperatures have already risen about 0.8°C[1] above pre-industrial levels and are projected to rise of approximately 3 to 5°C over pre-industrial levels by 2100.
    • Avoiding temperature increases greater than 2 to 2.5°C would require very rapid success in reducing emissions of methane and black soot worldwide, and global carbon dioxide emissions must level off by 2015 or 2020 at not much above their current amount, before beginning a decline to no more than a third of that level by 2100.
  • The technology exists to seize significant opportunities around the globe to reduce emissions and provide other economic, environmental and social benefits, including meeting the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. To do so, policy makers must immediately act to reduce emissions by:
    • Improving efficiency in the transportation sector through measures such as vehicle efficiency standards, fuel taxes and registration fees/rebates that favor purchase of efficient and alternative-fuel vehicles.
    • Improving design and efficiency of commercial and residential buildings through building codes, standards for equipment and appliances, incentives for property developers and landlords to build and manage properties efficiently, and financing for energy-efficiency investments.
    • Expanding the use of biofuels through energy portfolio standards and incentives to growers and consumers.
    • Beginning immediately, designing and deploying only coal-fired power plants that will be capable of cost-effective and environmentally sound retrofits for capture and sequestration of their carbon emissions.
  • Some level of climate change and impacts from it is already unavoidable. Societies must do more to adapt to ongoing and unavoidable changes in the earth’s climate system by:
    • Improving preparedness/response strategies and management of natural resources to cope with future climatic conditions that will be fundamentally different than those experienced for the past 100 years.
    • Addressing the adaptation needs of the poorest and most vulnerable nations, which will bear the brunt of climate change impacts.
    • Planning and building climate-resilient cities.
    • Strengthening international, national and regional institutions to cope with weather-related disasters and an increasing number of climate-change refugees.
  • The international community, through the UN and related multilateral institutions, can play a crucial role in advancing action to manage the unavoidable and avoid the unmanageable by:
    • Helping developing countries and countries with economies in transition to finance and deploy energy-efficient and new-energy technologies.
    • Accelerating negotiations to develop a successor international framework for addressing climate change and sustainable development.
    • Educating all about the opportunities to adopt mitigation and adaptation measures. 
 
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