Extreme weather and climate change: How much are you willing to gamble?

• March 31, 2012
Flooding in Pakistan

Creative Commons: Samenwerkende Hulporganisaties, 2010

Why do you fasten your seatbelt if you’ve only got a tiny chance of dying in a car accident? Why do you try to keep your kids from smoking, when a moderately low number of smokers actually die as a result of their habit? And why do you buy insurance for your home despite the truly miniscule likelihood of it burning down? Because these are simply not risks worth taking.

So are those who advocate a do-nothing stance on climate change heavy smokers who drive around in uninsured cars without their seatbelts? Probably not, but in light of their take on the new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the talking points written for members of the Global Campaign for Climate Action about its important findings, you could be forgiven for wondering.

First things first: On 28 March the IPCC launched its special report on extreme weather (Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation, SREX for short). It examines the links between climate change, extreme weather events and the vulnerability of human and natural systems. This is important information for policy-makers who can use it to help us adapt to climate impacts now and in the future. We got a sneak preview of this report when the “Summary for Policy Makers”  was published last November.

The report is very important, because it starts to connect the dots between global warming trends and extreme weather events. In some cases the evidence is more certain than in others. But make no mistake; the report confirms this link for several types of events, in specific regions of the world, and in some cases globally.

For example, the report says “it is very likely that the length, frequency, and/or intensity of warm spells or heat waves will increase over most land areas” – with “very likely” being defined as between 90 and 100% certain. And if you think that’s not something to worry about, consider the estimated additional 40-50,000 people who died in the European heat wave of 2003, Europe’s hottest summer on record in around 500 years. Increased flooding in some regions is another area where impacts were considered likely to be linked to climate change. In other words, the risk of your house burning down pales in comparison to the risks you face from climate change.

My team provided the members of our NGO alliance with materials meant to help them publicly and accurately communicate the findings of the report on both occasions — the November summary and the full SREX report last week.

In these materials, we emphasized the link between climate change and extreme weather events where the IPCC has found such links with a degree of certainty. We did this because climate change poses a serious risk to the current and future well-being of people and the planet – a threat which requires urgent action.

There are other types of extreme weather events which are less clear in terms of their direct link to climate change, and which are the subject of ongoing research. But here again, just like the fire risk, taking a precautionary approach is just plain common sense. Scientific uncertainty about the link between specific events and climate change shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning that no link exists. As the IPCC report says, “Assigning ‘low confidence’ for projections of a specific extreme neither implies nor excludes the possibility of changes in this extreme.”

What we are advocating is nothing less than a planetary insurance policy. In fact, the “precautionary principle” is one of the fundamental principles of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change which nearly every country in the world has ratified. It says that governments should take precautionary measures, and tells us that a lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as an excuse for postponing action.

It seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? If there were a 90 to 100% chance (or even a 50% chance) that your house were going to burn down, would you forgo taking out fire insurance? Most people take a precautionary approach in their day-to-day lives, so why wouldn’t they want the same level of protection for our global life-support system?

But apparently in the eyes of some, this is a radical – alarmist even – approach. Climate deniers and media in Australia – including the Murdoch press – have read the document and criticized us for highlighting what the IPCC says, and for taking this precautionary stance.

They would also have their readers believe they’d been leaked a smoking gun, a top-secret paper which – gasp – emphasizes “the link between climate change and extreme weather events, despite uncertainties acknowledged by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” It seems to have escaped them that the document was not secret at all but widely shared. And ironically, elsewhere in their articles they quote experts who ultimately confirm what we say in our document about certainty and uncertainty.

What’s next for these pundits? Labeling insurance salesmen as alarmists? If our warning about the risks of climate change is controversial, how about a conservation organization amplifying science news about species loss, pointing out that the real figure could be even higher? A development agency highlighting the number of people going to bed hungry each night while acknowledging the estimate is conservative and reality might be worse? Shocking! Stop the presses and headline the scandal!

At the end of the day, highlighting confirmed impacts or potential risks, and promoting action to minimize them, is what climate campaigners do. Would anyone have it otherwise?

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About the Author

TckTckTck is the online hub for the Global Call for Climate Action. The GCCA represents an unprecedented alliance of more than 400 nonprofit organizations from around the world. Our shared mission is to mobilize civil society and galvanize public support to ensure a safe climate future for people and nature, to promote the low-carbon transition of our economies, and to accelerate the adaptation efforts in communities already affected by climate change.

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