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Too late to stop global warming by cutting emissions, scientists say

Oct. 18, 2012
Courtesy of 
and World Science staff

It’s probably too late to stop glob­al warm­ing by cut­ting emis­sions of heat-trapping green­house gas­es, a new study says.

Its au­thors ar­gue that gov­ern­ments and in­sti­tu­tions should shift their main fo­cus to adapt­ing to the prob­lem. Other re­search points to tech­no­logies for re­mov­ing the gas­es from the air.

“Gov­ern­ments’ at­tempts to lim­it green­house-gas emis­sions through car­bon cap-and-trade schemes and to pro­mote re­new­able and sus­tain­a­ble en­er­gy sources are probably too late to ar­rest the in­ev­i­ta­ble trend,” sci­en­tists write in a pa­per pub­lished on­line in the jour­nal Na­ture Cli­mate Change on Oct. 14.

Green­house gas­es such as car­bon di­ox­ide, re­leased through hu­man in­dus­t­ri­al pro­cesses and by mov­ing cars, trap heat in the at­mos­phere and lead to hot­ter and hot­ter tem­per­a­tures.

The pa­per ar­gues that pol­i­cy­makers pay much less at­ten­tion to mon­i­tor­ing, mod­el­ing and man­ag­ing the im­pacts of cli­mate change on nat­u­ral sys­tems such as glaciers, riv­ers, moun­tains and coasts. “This is a crit­i­cal omis­sion, as Earth sur­face sys­tems pro­vide wa­ter and soil re­sources, sus­tain ec­o­sys­tem ser­vic­es and strongly in­flu­ence bi­o­ge­o­chem­ical cli­mate feed­backs in ways that are as yet un­cer­tain,” the sci­en­tists wrote.

They say gov­ern­ments should fo­cus more on adap­tion be­cause glob­al warm­ing’s ef­fects on land-sur­face sta­bil­ity and on sed­i­ment move­ments as­so­ci­at­ed with ero­sion in­flu­ence sus­tainabil­ity, bio­divers­ity and food se­cur­ity.

Ac­cord­ing to the sci­en­tists, Earth sur­face sys­tems’ sen­si­ti­vity to “cli­mate forc­ing” is still ill-understood. Meas­ur­ing this sen­si­ti­vity would pre­sumably iden­ti­fy the sys­tems and en­vi­ron­ments most vul­ner­a­ble.

“This is par­tic­u­larly the case in coast­al en­vi­ron­ments, where rocky and sandy coast­lines will yield very dif­fer­ent re­sponses to cli­mate forc­ing, and where coast­al-zone man­age­ment plans are usu­ally based on past rath­er than fu­ture cli­mat­ic pat­terns,” they ar­gue. The pa­per’s au­thors are Jas­per Knight of Johannesburg-based Wits Uni­vers­ity and Stephan Har­ri­son of the Uni­vers­ity of Ex­e­ter in the U.K.


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It’s probably too late to stop global warming by cutting emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, a new study suggests. Its authors say governments and institutions should shift their main focus to adapting to the problem. “Governments’ attempts to limit greenhouse-gas emissions through carbon cap-and-trade schemes and to promote renewable and sustainable energy sources are probably too late to arrest the inevitable trend,” scientists write in a paper published online in the journal Nature Climate Change on Oct. 14. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, released through human industrial processes and by moving cars, trap heat in the atmosphere and lead to hotter and hotter temperatures. The paper argues that policymakers pay much less attention to monitoring, modeling and managing the impacts of climate change on natural systems such as glaciers, rivers, mountains and coasts. “This is a critical omission, as Earth surface systems provide water and soil resources, sustain ecosystem services and strongly influence biogeochemical climate feedbacks in ways that are as yet uncertain,” the scientists wrote. They say governments should focus more on adaption because global warming’s effects on land-surface stability and on sediment movements associated with erosion influence sustainability, biodiversity and food security. According to the scientists, Earth surface systems’ sensitivity to “climate forcing” is still ill-understood. Measuring this sensitivity would presumably identify the systems and environments most vulnerable. “This is particularly the case in coastal environments, where rocky and sandy coastlines will yield very different responses to climate forcing, and where coastal-zone management plans are usually based on past rather than future climatic patterns,” they argue. The paper’s authors are Jasper Knight of Johannesburg-based Wits University and Stephan Harrison of the University of Exeter in the U.K.