Melting glacier

Climate change - engineering a solution

The effects of climate change are significant, and it is too late to fight its consequences. However, engineers are ready to help us adapt to this uncertain future.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release its latest climate change findings, ‘The Fifth Assessment Report’, midway through 2013. It will come as no surprise if its conclusions are more portentous than the previous report over five years ago.We are confronted with the effects of climate change on land, in the oceans and in the stratosphere. We are experiencing unusual changes in temperature, rainfall and wind, as well as in plant and animal behaviour.

Recent evidence from the IPCC in its ‘Special report on managing the risks of extreme events and disasters to advance climate-change adaptation’ (SREX) suggests that climate change has led to alterations in climate extremes such as heat waves, record high temperatures and, in many regions, heavy precipitation in the past half century.

It warns that climate extremes, or even a series of non-extreme events, combined with social vulnerabilities and exposure to risks, can produce climate-related disasters.

“The main message from the report is that we know enough to make good decisions about managing the risks of climate-related disasters,” Chris Field, co-author of the report, says. “Sometimes we take advantage of this knowledge, but many times we do not. The challenge for the future has one dimension focused on improving the knowledge base and one on empowering good decisions, even for those situations where there is lots of uncertainty.”

Although the environmental and social factors that influence the risk of disasters vary from region to region, many of the effective strategies for dealing with it in a changing climate are similar. “The most effective measures tend to be those that aid sustainable development, provide a diverse portfolio of options, and represent low-regrets strategies in the sense that they yield benefits across a wide range of climate futures,” Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC says.

Professor Martin Parry, visiting professor at the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, explains that most of the changes will be incremental and manageable, but still substantial. “Within that incremental trend there could well be extreme-weather events of an increasing magnitude, which will pose quite a challenge for technology and engineering - more extreme thunderstorms, more deadly heatwaves, more severe drought events,” he says. “We are beginning to see that already with the heavy rainfalls that we witnessed this summer and increased flooding events. There will likely be difficult-to-manage extremes embedded in this trend.”

He is clear that cataclysm doesn’t have to happen if we adapt appropriately, but ominously warns that it could still happen if we do nothing.

Adapting for global warming

Mitigation efforts, which have largely fallen well short of the mark, require a coordinated global approach, something that, despite many false dawns, we are yet to achieve. “We don’t have a global agreement to mitigate or globally agreed targets,” Parry says. “We have done barely anything to reduce our emissions and consequently there is much more emphasis on adaptation. We have accepted the fact that we can’t prevent 1.5- 2°C warming, some people would argue that 2.5 or 3°C warming is more likely.

“In the meantime we must get on with adaptation. That adaptation can be and will need to be local and can be implemented at national, regional and local government level and, indeed, would need to be. It is much different to mitigation in that sense.”

He continues: “Individual countries can get on with what they need to do and some will perceive themselves to be more vulnerable than others, while some are wisely first targeting what we would call win-win adaptations. Doing what you want to do anyway to make your country and your economy less vulnerable to floods, droughts and heat waves. While you’re weatherproofing your economy you are climate proofing it at the same time.”

For the UK, floods, droughts and heatwaves will be the biggest threat, but will be quite selective geographically. “Many would argue that we have seen the onset of the type of floods that we are going to see in increasing intensity and frequency. We have had one heat wave in 2003, which in Paris killed 2,000 people,” Parry says.

While the future is highly uncertain, we can use the best scientific evidence available alongside well-established, risk-based decision approaches to assess risks and decide how to respond. The UK is the first country in the world to build this risk-based approach to climate change into legislation. The Climate Change Act 2008 specifies that we must carry out a Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA) every five years.

At the launch of the first CCRA earlier this year, Caroline Spelman, secretary of state for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, said: “We know that our climate has changed and will continue to change, and that the pace of change this century could be unprecedented. We also know that, while it is vital to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, inertia in the climate system from past emissions means that some climate change is inevitable, so we must assess the climate risks which we face and decide what to do about them.

“Climate risks affect all aspects of society. Rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and increasing frequency of extreme events have direct effects on people’s lives, as well as disrupting commodity prices, supply chains, markets, and economies. Building resilience is a long-term investment, but we can start now, particularly for risks where decisions have long-term consequences, for example planning our infrastructure.”

Climate change is where the real world meets the real economy: building effective climate resilience using a combination of the best evidence available alongside risk-based approaches is a pre-requisite for long-term sustainability. *

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