Climate Report Predicts Dire Threats for People, Including Food, Water Shortages
Published: March 31, 2014

A planet warmed by human-produced greenhouse gases poses significant risks already to people, cities and nations today and not just in the far-off future, according to a report the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released Monday.

And those risks could mean "abrupt or drastic changes" that could lead to unstoppable and irreversible climate shifts like the runaway melting of Greenland's glacial ice or the rapid drying out of South America's Amazon rainforest, the Christian Science Monitor reports.

The dangers of a warming Earth aren't limited to animals like polar bears. They're immediate and very human, the report says.

"The polar bear is us," says Patricia Romero Lankao of the federally financed National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., referring to the first species to be listed as threatened by global warming due to melting sea ice.


Pupils navigate a swamp on reed-rafts to get to school near Kenya's Lake Baringo, on March 14. A few dozen students at the school have been cut-off by the swelling lake that has now risen to reclaim plains from which it had receded more than a decade ago.

She was among the more than 60 scientists in Japan who wrote the  massive and authoritative report on the impacts of global warming, the second of three installments in the IPCC's latest assessment on the world's climate.

Another author offer of the report offered this assessment Monday: "We're all sitting ducks," said Princeton University professor Michael Oppenheimer.

After several days of late-night wrangling, more than 100 governments unanimously approved the scientist-written 49-page summary — which is aimed at world political leaders. The summary mentions the word "risk" an average of about 5 1/2 times per page.

(MORE: Climate Change Threatens Food Supply)

If climate change continues, the panel's larger report predicts these harms:

Violence: For the first time, the panel is emphasizing the nuanced link between conflict and warming temperatures. Participating scientists say warming won't cause wars, but it will add a destabilizing factor that will make existing threats worse.

Food: Global food prices will rise between 3 and 84 percent by 2050 because of warmer temperatures and changes in rain patterns. Hotspots of hunger may emerge in cities.

Water: About one-third of the world's population will see groundwater supplies drop by more than 10 percent by 2080, when compared with 1980 levels. For every degree of warming, more of the world will have significantly less water available.

Health: Major increases in health problems are likely, with more illnesses and injury from heat waves and fires and more food and water-borne diseases. But the report also notes that warming's effects on health is relatively small compared with other problems, like poverty.

Wealth: Many of the poor will get poorer. Economic growth and poverty reduction will slow down. If temperatures rise high enough, the world's overall income may start to go down, by as much as 2 percent, but that's difficult to forecast.

The report says scientists have already observed many changes from warming, such as an increase in heat waves in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Severe floods, such as the one that displaced 90,000 people in Mozambique in 2008, are now more common in Africa and Australia.

(MORE: Scientists: Let's Change How We Talk About Climate Change)

Europe and North America are getting more intense downpours that can be damaging. Melting ice in the Arctic is not only affecting the polar bear, but already changing the culture and livelihoods of indigenous people in northern Canada.

Past panel reports have been ignored because global warming's effects seemed too distant in time and location, says Pennsylvania State University scientist Michael Mann.

This report finds "It's not far-off in the future and it's not exotic creatures — it's us and now," says Mann, who didn't work on this latest report.

The United Nations established the climate change panel in 1988 and its work is done by three groups. One looks at the science behind global warming. The group meeting in Japan beginning Tuesday studies its impacts. And a third looks at ways to slow warming.

Its reports have reiterated what nearly every major scientific organization has said: The burning of coal, oil and gas is producing an increasing amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. Those gases change Earth's climate, bringing warmer temperatures and more extreme weather, and the problem is worsening.

The panel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, months after it issued its last report.

Since then, the impact group has been reviewing the latest research and writing 30 chapters on warming's effects and regional impacts. Those chapters haven't been officially released but were posted on a skeptical website.

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Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Volunteers use a pontoon to collect a car that has been cut off by flood waters at Burrowbridge on the Somerset Levels on Feb. 27 in Somerset, England. According to the Met Office, England and Wales have experienced their wettest winter since records began in 1766.

The key message can be summed up in one word that the overall report uses more than 5,000 times: risk.

"Climate change really is a challenge in managing risks," says the report's chief author, Chris Field of the Carnegie Institution of Science in California. "It's very clear that we are not prepared for the kind of events we're seeing."

Already the effects of global warming are "widespread and consequential," says one part of the larger report, noting that science has compiled more evidence and done much more research since the last report in 2007.

According to the report, risks from warming-related extreme weather, now at a moderate level, are likely to get worse with just a bit more warming. While it doesn't say climate change caused the events, the report cites droughts in northern Mexico and the south-central United States, and hurricanes such as 2012's Sandy, as illustrations of how vulnerable people are to weather extremes. It does say the deadly European heat wave in 2003 was made more likely because of global warming.

Texas Tech University climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, who was not part of this report team, says the important nuance is how climate change interacts with other human problems: "It's interacting and exacerbating problems we already have today."

University of Colorado science policy professor Roger Pielke Jr., a past critic of the panel's impact reports, said after reading the draft summary, "it's a lot of important work ... They made vast improvements to the quality of their assessments."

(MORE: Earth's Carbon Dioxide Levels Reach New Heights)

Another critic, University of Alabama Huntsville professor John Christy, accepts man-made global warming but thinks its risks are overblown when compared with something like poverty. Climate change is not among the developing world's main problems, he says.

But other scientists say Christy is misguided. Earlier this month, the world's largest scientific organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, published a new fact sheet on global warming.

It said: "Climate change is already happening. More heat waves, greater sea level rise and other changes with consequences for human health, natural ecosystems and agriculture are already occurring in the United States and worldwide. These problems are very likely to become worse over the next 10 to 20 years and beyond."

Texas Tech's Hayhoe says scientists in the past may have created the impression that the main reason to care about climate change was its impact on the environment.

"We care about it because it's going to affect nearly every aspect of human life on this planet," she says.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

MORE: The World's Most Historic Places in 2,000 Years

The Statue of Liberty Today

The Statue of Liberty Today

Above, we used Google Earth to visualize what 15 of the sites in the study might look like in the future, if its sea level rise projections come to pass. Thanks to Andrew David Thaler's DrownYourTown for the template to create these visualizations. (Photo by Medioimages/Photodisc/Thinkstock)

  • The Statue of Liberty Today
  • The Statue of Liberty With 15 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • The Statue of Liberty With 35 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Venice Today
  • Venice With 15 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Sydney Opera House Today
  • Sydney Opera House With 35 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Amsterdam Today
  • Amsterdam With 15 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Amsterdam With 35 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Tower of London Today
  • Tower of London With 15 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Tower of London With 35 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Tower of Hercules Today
  • Tower of Hercules With 35 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Independence Hall Today
  • Independence Hall With 15 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Independence Hall With 35 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Itsukushima Shrine Today
  • Itsukushima Shrine With 15 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Itsukushima Shrine With 35 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Tower of Belem Today
  • Tower of Belem with 15 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Tower of Belem With 35 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Westminster Abbey Today
  • Westminster Abbey With 15 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Westminster Abbey With 35 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Mont Saint-Michel Today
  • Mont Saint-Michel With 15 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Mont Saint-Michel With 35 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Leaning Tower of Pisa Today
  • Leaning Tower of Pisa With 15 Meters of Sea Level Rise
  • Leaning Tower of Pisa With 35 Meters of Sea Level Rise

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