Bracing for an unknown future with a hotter climate | Environment | All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 22.06.2012

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Bracing for an unknown future with a hotter climate

Climate change causes floods, droughts and desertification, forcing experts to test strategies tailored to each region. But uncertainty about which strategy might work is not being accepted as an excuse for inaction.

Scientists have come up with many different models for forecasting the progress of climate change. They have predicted just as many scenarios of how climate change may affect our future. All these models depend on just how much oil, coal and gas are burned and how much CO2 is emitted in the process, climate scientist Mojib Latif from the Helmholtz Centre for Marine Research in Kiel explained in an interview with DW.

When it comes to working out exactly when storms, heavy rain or dry periods are likely to hit a particular region, the business of climate forecasting becomes even more complex, Latif explained. The interaction of changing temperatures with wind, ocean currents or cloud formation makes it extremely difficult to make predictions. Models based on past events are always helpful, as climate change-affected shifts are specific to a particular place.

Think local

When it comes to adapting to a changing climate, it is essential to concentrate on local developments, explained Keith Alverson, Head of Climate Adaptation and Terrestrial Ecosystems at the United Nations Environment Programme. He used the example of sea-level change, which varies in different parts of the world.

"Something a lot of people don't realize is that sea level rise is not a global signal. Off the west coast of the USA, sea level has been going down for the last 20 years," Alverson explained. At the same time, rising seas threaten to completely submerge island states like the Maldives.

The Horn of Africa is another example that illustrates the unreliability of climate models to predict impacts for a particular area, said Alverson. "The IPCC has different projections, for say regional hydrological balance in the Horn of Africa. Some say it's going to get drier in the next hundred years, some wetter."

With so many conflicting predictions on the table, the UN expert suggests a broad survival strategy. "Policies should be about reducing our vulnerability to extremes or increasing our resilience in terms of a wide range of possible projections rather than concentrating on global variables," said the UN expert.

Dry desert soil

Experts are unable to agree on where there will be droughts or floods as global temperatures rise

Water in an uncertain future

In Europe, the effect of climate change on water availability differs from region to region. One in five Europeans is already affected in some way by climate-related changes to water. In some regions there are water shortages, while other places are being hit more often by torrential rain or flooding.

Alan Jenkins, Deputy Director of the British Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, views the uncertainty factor as a major challenge in adapting to climate change. Speaking at "Green Week", a European environment policy conference held in Brussels in May, he stressed there was no uncertainty about the general direction of climate change and the fact that it will have particular impacts on the water sector.

Taking action

Jenkins said it was necessary to keep working on strategies for resilience. That view is shared by Rosario Bento Pais, Head of the Climate Change Adaptation Unit at the European Union's Directorate General for Climate Action. The EU wants all levels of government across the bloc to work with these uncertainties and apply existing knowledge when tailoring plans for their own regions.

Experts will have to create survival models that use our knowledge of what is expected to happen over the coming decades, while allowing for unexpected events. In terms of preparation, governments now have to decided whether to adapt in preparation for known challenges, or create broader strategies that allow for unexpected events.

Water has value

The EU has been conducting a research project on the costs of climate change since 2009. The results indicate that it will be more expensive to put off action until, explained Rosario Bento Pais from the Climate Action Directorate. Building up resilience now is more effective.

a glass being filled with water at the tap

What is the value of water?

Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency EEA, stressed the need to protect water. She explained that water is becoming increasingly precious as climate change takes hold.

"Who makes the decisions about who has access to water and abstracts it? What price is going to be charged for use in industry versus the value of keeping it in ecosystems?" McGlade asked. The EEA chief said we need clarity about who should pay for the use – or the pollution – of water.

"No matter whether you're in the developing world or the developed world, you will need to keep water accounts in the future to make sure you understand the wealth that you have and how you will utilize it," said McGlade.

41 percent of Europe's 'water footprint' consists of water from other continents that goes into imported products. If water was seen as a valueable resource with market value, rather than something freely available, industrialized countries would have to compensate the developing world for using its water.

McGlade and other experts say we need standardized systems for measuring and paying for water. That could encourage industrialized countries to use the precious good more efficiently and help improve living conditions for the almost 900 million people around the globe who have no access to clean drinking water.

Author: Irene Quaile
Editor: Saroja Coelho