Today’s devastating report by the International Panel on Climate Change makes several important points crystal clear.
- Warming of the climate system is unequivocal.
Global warming really is happening. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, the three major greenhouse gases, are higher than any other time in the last 800,000 years.
- The climate system is absorbing more energy.
This is driven mainly by increased levels of carbon dioxide since 1750. It results in global warming and ocean acidification (which happens as the seas absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere).
- Human influence on the climate system is clear.
We are causing this to happen. Climate models are constantly improving and as they do the levels of uncertainty around our contribution to global warming reduce. It’s us alright.
- Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.
The current rate of “reduction” is not sufficient. Indications are that we will exceed the 2 degree rise that scientists use as the maximum that the system can warm by without triggering runaway processes. The relentless pursuit of economic growth in a globalised society makes this outcome increasingly likely.
The need for mitigation is now critical. We simply have to stop burning fossil fuels. Unless we do, we (or our children) will face unprecedented levels of disruption and hardship caused by rising sea levels, ocean acidification, summer drought and heat waves, winter flooding and more extreme weather events. These in turn will cause crop failures and additional deaths and there is every prospect they will result in increased warfare.
This is probably still not scary enough to make politicians act. So we need to look at adaptation too. (Nature will find ways to cope but the question is whether we will be part of the solution.)
The UK isn’t escaping climate impacts. Nature’s Calendar is already on the march. Vital relationships between species, relating to the relative timings of food availability and breeding, are falling apart. The expectation is that milder winters will enable pests and pathogens to thrive, making work like the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Initiative so important, but holding back the tide won’t work for ever.
Our “resilient landscapes” approach has climate adaptation as a core driver. The UK’s wildlife faces many pressures already and we need to help it withstand the oncoming slew of climate impacts. Improved landscape permeability – the relative ease of wildlife movements from patch to patch – is essential. It can be achieved through the combination of greater connectivity and reduced hostility of the landscape between patches. This calls for an holistic view of land use, and for us the roles that trees can play not just within woods but in the wider environment too.
These roles are many and varied. The provision of shade in towns and cities will become increasingly important: trees have the virtue of simultaneously cooling the air through evapotranspiration and in helping reduce surface water flooding. There is a broader utility in flood management more generally, reaching from urban to upland landscapes. Trees can help on farms, providing shade and shelter for livestock and crops as well as improving the health of our rivers by reducing soil erosion and runoff, and by providing vital habitat and food sources for aquatic invertebrates. The list is long, yet UK woodland creation rates are set to hit a ten year low.
Whilst the enormity of the IPCC’s findings is sinking in we can and should act locally to help improve our wildlife’s chances. We should do so with a sense of great urgency. As Robert Ingersoll astutely observed, “In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments, only consequences”.
Nick Atkinson, Senior Advisor