11 August 2009

Will Steffen on Climate Change Science

The Commonwealth Department of Climate Change has posted on its website a report by Dr Will Steffen, Executive Director of the ANU Climate Change Institute, entitled Climate Change 2009: Faster Change and more serious risks. The Report is published by the Department of Climate Change, to which the Dr Steffen is Science Adviser.

The Report is divided into four chapters:

1. Climate change science: the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report and beyond

2. Risks from a rapidly changing climate

3. Understanding climate as a system

4. Over-the-horizon research.

The following material is quoted directly from the Executive Summary of the Report. The full Report may be downloaded from here:

The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) is an outstanding source of information on our current scientific understanding of the climate system and how it is responding to the changes in the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases caused by human activities. In particular, the AR4 provides an excellent overview on issues where there is strong agreement, and points towards those issues where further research is required. But climate science is a rapidly moving field as researchers respond to the challenges laid out by the IPCC and the needs of governments and other groups for even better knowledge about climate change. Over the past three to four years, many new developments have occurred and many significant new insights have been gained. The most important of these are:

- The climate system appears to be changing faster than earlier thought likely. Key manifestations of this include the rate of accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, trends in global ocean temperature and sea level, and loss of Arctic sea ice.

- Uncertainties still surround some important aspects of climate science, especially the rates and magnitudes of the major processes that drive serious impacts for human societies and the natural world. However, the majority of these uncertainties operate in one direction – towards more rapid and severe climate change and thus towards more costly and dangerous impacts.

- The risk of continuing rapid climate change is focusing attention on the need to adapt, and the possible limits to adaptation. Critical issues in the Australian context include the implications of possible sea‑level rise at the upper end of the IPCC projections of about 0.8 m by 2100; the threat of recurring severe droughts and the drying trends in major parts of the country; the likely increase in extreme climatic events like heatwaves, floods and bushfires; and the impacts of an increasingly acidic ocean and higher ocean temperatures on marine resources and iconic ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef.

- Climate change is not proceeding only as smooth curves in mean values of parameters such as temperature and precipitation. Climatic features such as extreme events, abrupt changes, and the nonlinear behaviour of climate system processes will increasingly drive impacts on people and ecosystems. Despite these complexities, effective societal adaptation strategies can be developed by enhancing resilience or, where appropriate, building the capacity to cope with new climate conditions. The need for effective reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is also urgent, to avoid the risk of crossing dangerous thresholds in the climate system.

- Long‑term feedbacks in the climate system may be starting to develop now; the most important of these include dynamical processes in the large polar ice sheets, and the behaviour of natural carbon sinks and potential new natural sources of carbon, such as the carbon stored in the permafrost of the northern high latitudes. Once thresholds in ice sheet and carbon cycle dynamics are crossed, such processes cannot be stopped or reversed by human intervention, and will lead to more severe and ultimately irreversible climate change from the perspective of human timeframes.

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