IPCC: Global Warming Highway to Extinction

Climate change is paving a “highway to extinction” which could see billions of people perish from hunger, malnutrition, disease, extreme weather events, heat-induced stress and lack of drinkable water by the year 2050, according to the latest report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change due to be released in Belgium next Friday.

Climate scientist Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria in British Columbia told the Associated Press that the report maps out the consequences of climate change degree by degree, as temperatures rise. He said this presents a clear “highway to extinction, but on this highway there are many turnoffs. This is showing you where the road is heading. The road is heading toward extinction.”

Dr Weaver is one of the lead authors of the first IPCC report, issued in February. That report confirmed the strong scientific consensus that climate change is real and is caused by human activity related to greenhouse gas emissions.

If the global temperature rose by 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) up to 1.7 billion people would not have enough water. Infectious diseases and allergenic pollens would also substantially increase, and amphibians would begin to go extinct.

A further increase of 1 degree Celsius would see one-third of the world’s species approach extinction and at least 2 billion people facing death as a result of hunger, malnutrition, disease, extreme weather events, heat-induced stress and lack of drinkable water. Life on the planet would reach this threshold by the year 2050 if greenhouse gas emissions were not reduced substantially.

A further doubling of temperatures would see one-fifth of the world’s population affected by catastrophic flooding, up to 3.2 billion people facing extreme water shortages, and major extinctions around the globe.

Achim Steiner, the head of the UN Environment Program, told Reuters that “We are talking about a potentially catastrophic set of developments.” He believes the public, governments and businesses now realize that the substantive debate is over and that there is overwhelming consensus on climate change in the scientific community.

“We’ve passed the tipping point,” he said. “It’s no longer about whether climate change is happening – but about how we deal with it.” The next report of the IPCC, due out in October 2007, will assess the range of options for limiting greenhouse gas emissions and otherwise mitigating climate change.

Reports of the IPCC draw on the research of 2,500 climate scientists and reviewers. Only conclusions and projections beyond dispute make it into the final drafts of the reports, which are then signed off by more than 120 governments.

A draft of the current IPCC report has been circulated to major media organizations and lists a range of potential climate change related consequences including:

  • vast tracts of low-lying nations, island-states and coastlines around the world being swallowed by rising sea levels;
  • powerful heat waves recurring across the United States;
  • Australia’s Great Barrier Reef being destroyed; and
  • agricultural production plummeting world-wide (after a brief boost in Russia, Canada, New Zealand and Scandinavia).

Despite the dire warnings contained in this second report of the IPCC, scientists remain optimistic that humanity will act on climate change.

Oceanographer James McCarthy of Harvard University, one of the key authors of the current report, is one such optimist. “The worst stuff is not going to happen because we can’t be that stupid,” he told Reuters. “Not that I think the projections aren’t that good, but because we can’t be that stupid.”

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