In recent years, as national governments have begun to deal with the impacts of climate change, local governments in cities and towns have begun to pursue sustainable initiatives. New policies and design features such as congestion charges, green roofs, managed growth, revised building standards, increased green spaces, and low- or zero-carbon public transport are set to minimize environmental impacts, curb resource use and consumption, and transform the urban landscape in municipalities of all sizes. Both individual boroughs in metropolises such as Islington in London and entire towns such as Curitiba, Brazil and Totnes, the first ‘Transition Town’ in the UK, have moved towards environmentally-minded planning policies, a crucial development: the UN has reported that in 2008, the number of people living in cities exceeded for the first time those living in rural areas, and that by 2030 this figure would reach 5 billion.
See also: Population Growth and Climate Change
One of the most pressing issues that climate change presents is the displacement of individuals and communities due to unmanageable changes in their home regions. While precise figures are difficult to calculate—the drivers for migration are multiple and complex, and are often tied into a suite of political, economic, and social drivers—the impacts associated with climate change such as increased flooding and sea level rise are poised to lead to increases in the involuntary relocation of millions of people, and in the cases of low-lying island nations such as Tuvalu and the Maldives, the permanent relocation of entire countries. “For some countries,” Khaleda Zia Begum, the former Prime Minister of Bangladesh, has said, “the impacts of climate change are lifestyle threatening, in others they are life threatening.” Initial estimates from 1995 claimed that 25 million individuals had already been displaced due to primarily environmental factors, a figure which was set to double by 2010.
See also: Heat Waves, Population Growth and Climate Change, Tipping Points
The measure of the biodiversity of a region—the ability for numerous different species of plants and animals to coexist and thrive in a given environment—is the measure of its strength. The greater diversity a region enjoys, the more likely it is to be able to withstand shocks and pressures on resources, as well as to contain new species and discoveries previously unknown to scientists. By amplifying strains on resources, changing physical environments, and altering life cycles (among other impacts), climate change is poised to imperil both the species in the affected regions (leading to possible extinction if unchecked) and the potential for human benefit that arises out of these regions. As organisations such as UNESCO have recognised, biodiversity is not just a feature, but an integral aspect of the world’s natural heritage; its potential loss, therefore, has wide-reaching implications.
See also: Biospheres, Climate Change and Cultural Heritage
The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species (Scott Weidensaul, 2002)
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings (blog by Caspar Henderson)
International Union for the Conservation of Nature
UNEP Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity
UNESCO World Heritage List in Danger
Coastlines are one of the most environmentally sensitive regions to the impacts of climate change. As the membranes between land and sea, they are likely to suffer from increased flooding, erosion, and increasingly powerful storms in the context of climate change, jeopardising both the human and the natural settlements that dwell in them and make use of them for livelihoods and subsistence. While certain protection measures such as groynes and sea walls can be put in place, they too impact local areas, and are rarely permanent in nature. In recent years governments have acknowledged the heightened vulnerability of communities in coastal regions and have, in some cases, moved to reclaim land to allow for managed land loss. Some communities in at-risk regions have begun to abandon coastal regions altogether; if climate change is left unchecked, the decision may soon be made for others.
See also: Disaster Preparedness, Environmental Refugees
Environment Agency (UK): Coastal Change
National Trust (UK): Shifting Shores
Artist Kane Cunningham buys a house to watch it fall into the sea (Times)
“Lines of Defence” project at Bawdsey, Suffolk, by artist Bettina Furnée
Environmental tipping points refer to changes in ecological systems that, once underway, are unable to be stopped and contribute to further impacts in turn. Albedo is a good illustration: albedo is the mirror-like reflective capacity of ice (usually referred to in polar contexts) that redirects incoming sunlight, and therefore heat, back out of the earth’s atmosphere. This system, among others such as the Gulf Stream, helps to regulate the earth’s temperature. But if ice continues to disappear as a result of the climate change that has already been induced, then this system will eventually lose so much ice that it can no longer prevent undue warming from the sun’s rays. That point will become a point of no return, or a tipping point at which the changes to the earth’s ecosystem can no longer be prevented. Current research suggests that 2 degrees centigrade of global warming above pre-industrial levels will constitute a tipping point, after which the impacts will become increasingly unmanageable.
See also: Changing Polar Landscapes, Environmental Migration, Heat Waves
The earth’s forests are one of its most valuable natural assets to fight climate change. As natural carbon ‘sinks’, the amount of carbon they consume through photosynthesis (converting CO2 to oxygen) plays a crucial role in regulating the earth’s temperature. Yet across the globe forests are under severe threat: both from other landforms such as encroaching grassland and deserts and from human intervention. Private enterprise and governments alike view forests as a resource to be developed and harvested; if this is undertaken without sustainable forestry management principles in place or respect for the rights of indigenous communities who live in these zones, then the impacts quickly escalate out of control. Deforestation accounts for a considerable percentage of greenhouse gas emissions globally; in order to curb these emissions levels the REDD programme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) agreed at the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks sets financial incentives on forest resources in order to encourage their long-term conservation and management.
See also: Biodiversity and Climate Change, Tipping Points.
Disasters can strike at any moment. While some regions are more prone to certain types of disasters than others (such as coastlines vulnerable to flooding or hurricanes, or settlements near volcanoes or fault lines), every region on earth is vulnerable to adverse environmental impacts of some form. As climate change is projected to increase the frequency of disasters in regions around the globe, it is important to know what kinds of disasters are likely to strike your area. While local and national governments play a key role both in preparing citizens in advance of disaster and responding adequately when disaster strikes, by far the best form of disaster management is not to wait for one to strike. Prior adaptation such as creating an emergency plan with family and community members, and having a disaster kit in the home, can minimise the risks that disasters pose.
See also: Heat Waves, Climate Change and Disease
One of the most immediate impacts of the rise of global surface temperatures has been the expansion of arid and semi-arid regions across the world, regions that cover about 40% of the earth’s surface. Desertification can be caused by a number of factors, including overgrazing, overexploitation of water resources, soil degradation, and normal variations in climate. While deserts can be tapped for sources of renewable energy (namely wind and solar), in 1977, the UN formally recognised that the expansion of deserts into other landforms has had a profound impact on the social, economic, environmental, and biological health of the affected regions, and established international protocols to better understand and combat this process. Growing and more swiftly-moving deserts threaten lives and livelihoods on nearly every continent, and have already resulted in the migration of local communities across and between regions. In extreme cases, such as in the shrinkage of Lake Chad (bordering Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon), desertification has sparked both political and armed conflicts over the remaining resource.
See also: Environmental Migration, Climate Change and Conflict, Green Technologies
The idea of man-made, self-sustaining habitats has long appealed to scientists, designers, architects, and ecologists: visions of self-contained units whereby humans can live and work without any input from outside sources has been championed as an opportunity not only to better understand biological and ecological processes here on Earth, but to construct a workable, tested model of what the settlement of inhospitable environments might look like. In this way they are often seen as a retreat, or a safe haven from an outside disaster. They are common in fictional works, often found in undersea environments and in outer space: many works of literature, film, and even video games rely on visions of biospheres to construct their fictional worlds, and frequently use them as the stage on which other human dramas are played out.
See also: Biodiversity and Climate Change
The world’s population, currently 6.8 billion people, is increasing dramatically: the UN estimates that by late 2011 it will reach 7 billion people, and by 2050, it will surpass 9 billion, an exponential increase that poses numerous challenges for countries seeking to mitigate against potential climate-change related impacts (from increased resource use to potential migration). But it is too simple to equate more people with more CO2 in the atmosphere, or vice versa. Crucial imbalances remain between population, socioeconomic level, emissions levels, vulnerability, and the capacity to adapt to environmental change: per capita, Australia is a world leader in CO2 emissions (currently about 20 tonnes per person), but is only the 55th largest country by population. Yet India only emits about 2 tonnes of CO2 per capita, despite being the second-largest country by population. The 21st century will require innovative solutions — not just limits on carbon emissions or birth rates — to tackle these imbalances.
See also: Greening Cities, Environmental Refugees
Significant changes will take place in the Earth’s polar regions due to increased temperatures both in the ocean and the atmosphere. These changes in the Arctic and the Antarctic include the melting of polar ice caps, the accelerated loss of sea ice, ocean acidification, threats to biodiversity and species extinction, and even the potential for altered political landscapes. As once-permanent sea ice melts (some estimates place a total disappearance of summer Arctic sea ice by 2030-2040), new trade and shipping routes will open up alongside new regions which governments and corporations will explore in pursuit of natural resources such as oil and gas. Quarrels over the rights to these resources could result in flared tensions between countries or even spark outright conflict, proving that climate change is as much a security issue as it is an environmental one.
See also: Tipping Points
Cultural heritage sites around the world are vulnerable to many of the potential impacts that climate change poses. Impacts ranging from sea level rise, changes in atmospheric composition, and increased climatic volatility all threaten historic sites, structures, and landscapes. In recent years governments and organisations tasked with safeguarding cultural heritage have responded to these challenges by inventorying sites at risk and setting forth adaptation and mitigation strategies. While some sites face inevitable transformation or even loss due to climate impacts, others will face the migration of communities in and around those sites. Current policy responses include the monitoring and documentation of potential impacts and the preparation of those sites, structures, and landscapes for managed change.
See also: Biodiversity and Climate Change.
English Heritage. Climate Change and the Historic Environment. (2008)
National Trust (UK). Forecast-Changeable? Climate Change Impacts around the National Trust. (2006)
UNESCO report: Case Studies on Climate Change and World Heritage. (2007)
The heat wave that Europe experienced in summer 2003 was one of the worst natural disasters in recent years. Combined with a drought that devastated agricultural production across the continent, the disaster claimed over 20,000 lives. While heat waves are always defined in terms relative to a particular region, they usually occur from a combination of factors such as high air pressure, little cloud cover and a decrease in winds that naturally cool an area. Even for short periods of time, high temperatures can cripple infrastructure such as roads, power stations, and water lines, making it even more difficult to deliver aid to individuals, families, and communities in need of heat relief. The increased average temperatures expected with climate change are projected to increase both the frequency and intensity of heat waves in years to come.
See also: Environmental Refugees, Tipping Points, Climate Change and Disease
Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago (Eric Klinenberg, University of Chicago Press, 2003)
Met Office report on the Heat Wave of 2003
Impacts of Summer 2003 Heat Wave in Europe (UNEP)
While early analyses of climate change focused on its physical causes and impacts, recent years have increasingly shown that climate change affects nearly all areas of life — including some that had previously not been connected. In particular, climate change is now understood to spark conflict situations around the globe, whether from decreasing available resources such as water or arable land (and leading to struggles over those remaining), reducing crop yields and increasing the risk of famine, or by triggering the mass migration of peoples and communities into new areas that may not be equipped to receive them. These risks are especially high in developing countries where pressures on resources and land-use are already strained, and in environmentally-sensitive areas such as the polar regions where the impacts could be catastrophic. The relationships between climate and conflict were explored in a 2003 report prepared for the Pentagon, a report that claimed that climate change could, over time, pose a greater cumulative threat to national security than terrorism.
See also: Tipping Points, Changing Polar Landscapes, Environmental Migration.
An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security.
Climate Change as a Security Risk.
Can Climate Change Cause Conflict? Recent History Suggests So (Scientific American)
One of the ‘silent killers’ of climate change, the spread of infectious diseases due to climate-related phenomena poses a considerable threat over the coming decades. Many studies suggest that the increased migration of disease-carrying species will be primarily to blame, as the expansion of temperate regions invites these species, such as mosquitoes and ticks, to breed there. But other factors play a role too. As researcher Paul R. Epstein has argued, “Weather and climate can influence host defences, vectors, pathogens, and habitat.” Combined with the impacts that climate change will place on infrastructure, health, and emergency resources, it is clear even now that the ability of local communities to withstand the incursion of new diseases will be severely tested. The early monitoring and surveillance of the spread of disease can help local communities prepare for these impacts, but much more adaptation work in the meantime is clearly necessary.
See also: Heat Waves, Disaster Preparedness