Mapping the problem space and the opportunity space

At the recent Third International Symposium on the Effects of Climate Change on the World’s Oceans in Santos, Brazil, Chris Fields, Co-Chair of the IPCC Working Group II, discusses the risks and mitigation of climate change.
Published: 27 March 2015

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Chris Field, Director of the Department of Global Ecology at Carnegie Institution ​​for Science​ and Co-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group II, opened the symposium with his keynote speech, Mapping the problem space and the opportunity space.​

What are the risks for our oceans and coastal areas associated with climate change?​
We are now in a very different scientific position to just a few years ago, when we were struggling to be sure whether or not there were any effects of climate change. Now we see them everywhere. That's partly due to the advance in the body of evidence, but, more depressingly it's because of the amount of climate change that has occurred.

The risks going forward relate to the fact that the oceans are subject to multiple stressors. Rising temperatures are one, changes in ocean pH are another, and human impacts that have already occurred are a whole other class. These include pressure from fishing and, especially in coastal areas, from pollutants entering the water. The oceans are a frustratingly good example of the way much of the world is operating, where climate change is making other stressors more complicated, more challenging, and narrowing the range of possible solutions. On the other hand, some of the best solutions to adapting to climate change are to relieve the other pressures that are occurring.

When we look forward, the risks from ocean related processes fall into three major categories. Some of the most profound and difficult to manage are associated with rising sea levels and the consequences for coastal communities. Many of the risks concern the ocean as a major source of protein for hundreds of millions of people and the sustainability of world fisheries, especially in relation to the redistribution of fisheries that coastal regions have depended on for centuries. A third class of risks concern fundamental ecosystem processes where the species at risk of loss may not be economically important but they represent part of our natural heritage.

Some of the best solutions to adapting to climate change are to relieve the other pressures that are occurring. Can you elaborate on the need for adaptation and mitigation measures? 
Let me frame that question with two different thoughts. The first is that we know that some climate changes, as a result of inertia in the physical parts of the system and as a consequence of the existing infrastructure, are already baked into the system. We will see some kind of climate changes over the next few decades, more or less independent of how ambitious we are with mitigation actions. We need to be sure to adapt to those, just as we need to adapt to whatever future changes occur as a consequence of the future decisions we make. There is no question that adaptation has to be part of the response and many of the best adaptation options for the ocean are related to decreasing other pressures, such as fishing, pollution, pressure and inappropriate coastal developments.

It is also clear that unless we decrease the rate at which greenhouse gases are increasing in the atmosphere, eventually bringing emissions to zero, there will be many ocean challenges that we can't adapt to and that's the motivation for mitigation. Mitigation essentially keeps the magnitude of climate change small enough that adaptation presents some compelling opportunities. Adaptation allows us to deal with the climate change that can't be avoided.​

And what are the time scales involved?
We need adaptation moving forward; there's no question that adaptation is a way to address the short term challenges. But it is also clear that throughout the twenty first century and beyond, we will need adaptation.

Mitigation has a very important set of constraints. This means that the sooner we start acting, the less residual damage we have, the less complicated, and the less expensive the problem is to deal with. There are profound advantages in acting soon on mitigation, even though you don't see those investments pay off in a big way until we are approaching the middle decades of the century. If, for example, you look at the temperature traces for a world of continued high emissions in a world of ambitious mitigations, those traces will track on top of each other throughout the 2030s and only begin to separate in the 2040s. That's when we really begin to see the success of mitigation but we do need to start now, because now is when it's cheap and effective.

What do you see as the biggest challenges to implementing mitigation measures? 
We are starting to see some sorts of mitigations. What we're not seeing is sufficient ambition to decrease the year-on-year rates of CO2 emissions. There are three sets of challenges that have slowed commitments to mitigation: a reluctance to recognize the importance of the climate problem; a failure to capitalize on the real opportunities for advances in mitigations that have profound co-benefits and a good example of this is investments in energy efficiency that save money at the same time as decreasing demand for energy; and a number of inbuilt subsidies in the global economy that keep us focussed on a fossil-based energy system. What we really need in order to unleash the opportunities for mitigation is a level playing field that doesn't subsidize fossil energy over the alternative and that recognizes that there are real damages associated with climate change.

You note that there is a reluctance to recognize the importance of the climate problem. What role does the scientific community have in ensuring a transparent, accurate, and effective representation of their research?
It is especially important when it comes to climate change that an accurate assessment of the science is presented because everyone's perception tends to be based on his or her own experience. The scientific community has a tremendous opportunity and a tremendous responsibility to provide what I think of as the scientific foundation for smart policies moving forward. The scientific community can't decide which policies should be deployed but I think that our real responsibility is to ensure that decision-makers at all levels, from family to national government, have the best available information and understand that information, so that it can be used for policies that work for people. While climate change is incredibly rapid in the trajectory of the earth's history, it proceeds very slowly relative to the speed of the political process and in the context of individuals' lives. However, one thing that has been very encouraging over the last several years is an increasing fraction of people and an increasing number of countries that really recognize that climate change is the defining challenge of our era, one that great nations and great people tackle.

Finally, how do you see future ICES/PICES/IOC climate change symposia feeding into IPCC Assessment Reports?
One of the things that I am very proud of is that we have increasingly recognized the role of the oceans in the changing climate, both in the physics and in the responses, especially the biology. It is incredibly important that we recognise the role of the oceans in the earth's system.

The IPCCs responsibility is to assemble a comprehensive picture of what we know and what we don't know about the science of climate change and a lot of that science is about the oceans. There is a genuine opportunity to build on new knowledge that is produced as a result of scientific papers published by those participating in ICES and PICES symposia. Without that, the IPCC will not have the raw material that is needed to provide the scientific foundations that are its opportunity and responsibility.

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​Symposium keynote speaker, Chris Field, Director of the Department of Global Ecology at Carnegie Institution for Science and Co-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group II. 

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Mapping the problem space and the opportunity space

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