Global Warming Has Serious ConsequencesUpdated 23/10/2012, published online 11/29/2010
The melting of ice floes, the disappearance of some species, epidemics and economic recession – global warming could have serious consequences. However, individuals and policymakers are becoming more aware of these issues, which is encouraging.
A Disrupted Climate
Empirically, the public is becoming aware of the climate changes underway. For example, everyone remembers the exceptional heat wave in 2003.
For scientists, the indicators of global warming are as follows:
• an increase in the frequency of heat waves;
• a reduction in the surface area and thickness of glaciers (retreat);
• the melting of ice floes;
• loss of mass of polar ice sheets in the Antarctic and Greenland;
• increased average ocean levels;
• disrupted water cycle, which may lead to very heavy rainfall (flooding) or prolonged droughts;
• changes in vegetation (flowering dates, harvest times, etc.);
• migrations of animal species (e.g. insects).
Entire populations affected
Global warming has effects on public health that are difficult to quantify. Many other factors come into play (organization of the health system, state of development, etc.).
Nevertheless, public health is affected by climate:
• Heat waves have consequences on particularly vulnerable populations (older people, newborns, and people with respiratory problems, particularly asthma).
• Air quality is altered, which also affects vulnerable people and those suffering from cardio-respiratory problems.
• Changes in pollen production are one of the reasons why allergies are on the increase in most countries.
• Movements of insects carrying epidemics (malaria, dengue) can lead to the extension of the areas at risk of these epidemics.
Climate changes also affect farm production and fishing resources, which in turn have consequences on people's food supply. Finally, extreme events (tsunamis, floods) can bring epidemics such as cholera.
Adaption processes are being drafted to combat these risks. For example, in France, the Haut Conseil de la Santé Publique (Public Health Council) has been tasked with setting up a think-tank on adapting to climate change.
A troubled economy
It is very difficult to estimate the economic impact of global warming. According to economists, the cost varies from 2 to 50 euro per ton of carbon emitted. Some experts announce even higher figures1.
According to British economist Nicholas Stern2, the cost of climate change will be considerable in the coming decades. It could lead to a major recession (of some 20% of global GDP) – whereas combating climate change would cost 1% of global GDP. The debate on the value of these figures and on the assumptions underlying them is intense, but this argument aims to convince economic stakeholders and decision-makers of the necessity to act.
Therefore, it is possible to:
• decide on strict guidelines to remove carbon from developed economies and emerging countries alike;
• focus on the development of green technologies, to prevent and limit environmental damage,. i.e. through promoting the use of carbon storage, hybrid or electrical vehicles, low-energy buildings, hydrogen fuel cells, etc.
• control and reduce the rise in greenhouse gas emissions.
Becoming aware of the reality of global warming and its consequences is the first step in implementing solutions, from changes in everyday behavior to international policies.
Today we know that the increase in greenhouse gas emissions cannot be reduced fast enough to prevent a temperature rise. It is now necessary to implement adaptation strategies across the board to limit and counter the impacts of climate change.
Furthermore, taking action to control greenhouse gas emissions (and anticipate the consequences of climate change) may have other positive consequences, on employment, air quality and quality of life.
Adaptation across the board
While emissions reduction primarily consists of international action, adaptation concerns a vast number of mostly local actions affecting all sectors. These include managing water, agriculture, infrastructures and human settlements, transports, healthcare, energy and transport systems3. By way of illustration, a health risk management program during severe heat waves could be considered as part of an adaptation strategy.
In France, for example, a Plan national d’adaptation au changement climatique4 (National climate change adaptation program) was set up for the 2011-2015 period. It outlines a catalog of 80 initiatives supported by 230 measures and recommendations in a number of fields (especially biodiversity, health and agriculture). This plan represents a €171 M budget, adding to the €391 M already allocated for "Investissements d'Avenir" (Investments for the Future program).
Most of these initiatives will be implemented in 2011-2012 and will focus on 4 main points:
• reducing water consumption in all sectors (-20% by 2020);
• reinforcing systems to monitor emerging diseases (allergies, asthma);
• adapting the national planning policy (transportation, sea level, etc.);
• preventing forest fires, and anticipating long-term effects in forestry management.
Under this plan, large communities must adopt a Plan climat-énergie territorial (regional climate and energy plan) by end-2012, to include an assessment of greenhouse gas emissions.
Implementing this system is a first in Europe. It will be subject to yearly indicator follow-ups and will undergo a final evaluation in 2015.