We Need to Adapt to Climate Change, but Slash Emissions to Prevent More

Article excerpt

BYLINE: Harald Winkler

AN article in the Cape Times on December 1, 2006 made the statement that "whether we take 'the Greenpeace route' and slash greenhouse gas emissions now, or 'the George Bush route' and carry on emissions, we cannot stop climate change happening over the next 50 years. Action we take now in cutting greenhouse gas emissions will have an effect only in the second half of the century".

There are two major sets of action to take on climate change. Mitigation refers to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or removing them from the atmosphere. Adaptation means dealing with the impacts of climate change.

We have to do both.

To say that adaptation is the only thing that matters draws a false dichotomy. Two things are true:

l Some degree of climate change is no longer avoidable, and we must adapt,

l It is equally true that if we do not mitigate, and start soon, we will reach a point where we cannot adapt our way out of the problem.

Statements such as "adaptation is the bottom line globally" look only at one side of the coin.

The climate modellers are right, of course, in that emissions today only make themselves felt over a long period. There are significant lags in the climate system, so that no matter what the future state of global emission, we will face some level of climate change.

If action taken only matters 50 years from now, a politician with a five-year time-frame will conclude one thing: nothing needs to be done! No emissions need to be reduced. Bush would be delighted to hear it.

But this is only one of the scientific findings about climate change. Equally valid are findings that "emissions of greenhouse gases due to human activities continue to alter the atmosphere in ways that are expected to affect the climate".

Or more bluntly, the evidence is increasing year by year that observed warming is due to human activity. Notably the emissions of greenhouse gases and some deforestation, which reduces the uptake of CO2 by ecosystems.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Third Assessment Report, from which these findings are taken, also says that human influence will continue to "change atmospheric composition throughout the 21st century". …