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Climate Panel Says Science is Critical for Monitoring, Addressing Global Change
As President Barack Obama unveils his administration's agenda, a panel of top climate experts speaking on Capitol Hill warned that global warming is "unequivocal" and that its effects will "pose serious challenges" to critical resources like drinking water and agriculture.
Speaking at two 9 January briefings co-sponsored by AAAS, the speakers provided a scientific perspective on climate change to Congress as it deliberates solutions to help humans mitigate and adapt to its effects.
Due to the "compelling scientific evidence" that climate change is affecting the timing and amount of precipitation and snowmelt in the Western United States, Peter Gleick, president and co-founder of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, said that extreme events like droughts and floods could become more common. He added that California could lose its Sierra Nevada snow pack by the end of the century, and that other states could face similarly dramatic impacts.
"The impacts of climate change are not only unavoidable, they are already occurring, posing significant threats to critical resources like the availability and quality of water in the United States," said Gleick.
"It is imperative that Congress, in consultation with state and local governments, revise the nation's water policy as the changing climate redistributes water," he said, adding that wet regions could experience more floods, while dryer regions could encounter more droughts.
At the morning and afternoon briefings for Senate and House staffers, Gleick spoke alongside Susan Solomon, a former co-chair of Working Group 1 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; Timothy Wirth, former U.S senator and current president of the United Nations Foundation and the Better World Fund; and Ted Parson, professor of law and of natural resources and environment at the University of Michigan.
Moderated by AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner, the briefings were held in the Dirksen Senate Office Building and the Rayburn House Office Building, and were co-sponsored by the Ecological Society of America, Geological Society of America, American Meteorological Society, and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.
"Monitoring climate change and crafting a response to its consequences is an incredibly important topic for society and is on everyone's screen," said Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of the journal Science. "And with the new administration, everyone, in the United States and abroad, is expecting new climate policy."
Solomon, a senior scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo., said that nearly all regions of the world have experienced warming, adding that 11 of the past 12 years have been the highest global mean temperatures on record. Solomon said that the warming temperatures have increased water vapor in the atmosphere, led to glacial retreat, reduced Arctic sea ice, and caused an increase in extreme weather events around the world.
"There are many changes that signal a warming world," said Solomon.
As co-chair of Working Group 1 of the IPCC, Solomon and her colleagues assessed published research and prepared a report, which underwent multiple reviews and revisions from more than 600 experts with 30,000 comments, and by dozens of governments. Solomon said that the report, which concluded that humans are driving an "unprecedented" amount of climate change, was successful because it "brought the discipline of science to policy."
Wirth, who served as the lead U.S. negotiator for the Kyoto Climate Conference in the mid-1990s, outlined several pivotal climate change agreements.
While many experts accuse the United States of resisting climate change policy, Wirth said that the United States was one of the first nations to ratify the United Nations Framework on Climate Change at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, which contained a treaty on biodiversity and set forth an agreement to "avoid dangerous anthropomorphic change in the climate system by reducing garbage in the atmosphere."
In 1997, the world set out to define what "dangerous" climate interference entailed, which led to the Kyoto Protocol detailing a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5% compared to 1990. Despite the United States' unwillingness to ratify the agreement, 60% of Kyoto nations signed the agreement and it went into force. The Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012 and global talks have begun on developing a successor. Wirth said that the next big climate change meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December will be a key point in these negotiations.
Craig Schiffries, director for geoscience policy at the Geological Society of America, explained the reasoning behind the briefing and why multiple scientific societies came together for the event: "Climate change is an enormous issue, both in its scientific complexity and its implication for society," said Schiffries. "Therefore, it's imperative for scientific societies to work together to improve the scientific basis of climate change policy."
Parson said that the United States is "currently going in the wrong direction" in limiting climate change emissions, which will lead to increased carbon concentrations in the atmosphere. He added that to restrict global warming to 1.5 to 3 degrees centigrade, developed nations need to drastically reduce emissions.
To achieve the emission reductions necessary to limit atmospheric carbon concentrations, Parson said nations would need to transform the world energy structure through existing and future technologies. Parson cited technologies to increase the use of renewable resources, biofuels, and carbon-capture programs, and to improve the efficiency of energy consumption.
But, he added, these improvements will take significant political will.
"None of the solutions are free of political or environmental challenges," said Parson, adding that there is no "silver bullet" and that we should pursue all options. "But a change in technology will not happen without changes in policy that are clear, simple, and transparent."
28 January 2009