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Beyond Paris, Part 2: The Dire Consequences of Inaction

Matthew Stepp's picture
Center for Clean Energy Innovation

Matthew Stepp is the Executive Director for the Center for Clean Energy Innovation specializing in climate change and clean energy policy. His research interests include clean energy technology...

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By Matthew Stepp and Amanda Kibbe, Center for Clean Energy Innovation

In 2012, Jesse Jenkins and Matthew Stepp took stock of the global climate policy challenge in an online series titled The Future of Global Climate Policy. Since then the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) completed its Fifth Assessment and many countries are taking stock of their existing—and some argue, failed—climate policies. Looking to the future, the latest round of international climate negotiations is set to close in Paris at the end of 2015, potentially offering the end of one era of global climate policymaking and the start of something new. With an eye on the long-term impacts of the 2015 negotiations, Amanda Kibbe and Matthew Stepp take an updated look in a five-part series on the state of the climate challenge. Click here for Part 1.

In Part 1, we discussed the IPCC’s most recent take on some of the major indicators of a warming planet and how pumping CO2 into the atmosphere is accelerating these changes. The next logical question is: what are the potential future impacts of a changing climate system? More extreme weather? Higher sea level? More drought and heat waves? Where will these impacts be felt the most?

Answering these questions depends on a simple factor: the quantity of carbon emissions emitted in the coming decades. If carbon emission growth continues unabated, the consequences of climate change will continue to grow in number and magnitude, threatening severe short- and long-term changes across the world.

Making matters more complex, the degree of the impacts’ severity depends on the region and society’s ability to adapt. In both developing and developed countries, those living in poverty are among the most vulnerable to climate change because their ability to adapt is limited. Many developing countries lack the infrastructure and access to water and electricity needed to water crops or provide shelter from extreme weather—in some developing countries less than 10 percent of the population has any access to energy at all.

The IPCC discusses a number of key climate impacts on the socio-economic fabric of society:

Drought:The incidence of drought impacts the availability of water andis expected to increase as a result of changing precipitation patterns. Generally speaking, dry regions are expected to become drier, and wet regions are expected to become wetter. We’ve witnessed some of these impacts already. Droughts in the 1990’s and 2000’s are among the worst since 1950. People living in regions already experiencing water shortages will be especially susceptible to drought, which will limit crop production, threaten water security, and reduce water quality. The IPCC predicts that climate change will intensify existing stress on water availability in some regions in Africa, which is already an obstacle for economic development in many countries on the continent. Drought can also increase the spread of vector-borne diseases. In areas where water sources are limited, both vector and host will remain close to the few water sources available; this increases the amount of contact between vector and host, making the transmission of diseases like malaria, dengue, and the West Nile virus more likely.

Flooding/water-borne diseases: Some regions are expected to receive more rain in the future. However, an increase in the amount of rainfall can mean either periods of long, steady rain or sporadic, heavy downpours. The increased risk of flooding can cause injury, damage property and crops, and contribute to the spread of vector and water-borne diseases. Heavy rainfall, along with other factors such as poor sanitation and poverty, have been linked to an increase in frequency and duration of water-borne disease outbreaks like cholera in several African countries. Therefore, regions in Africa with similar conditions will be more susceptible to the spread of water-borne disease. Increased rainfall can increase the number of available vector breeding sites, increasing the risk of disease contraction.

Sea-level rise: Also contributing to the risk of flooding is sea-level rise. Rises in sea-level, combined with more extreme weather, increase the risk of inland flooding in coastal regions, especially in low-lying coastal regions and small island states. Coastal regions are especially vulnerable to climate change because they are often densely populated. The benefits of protecting coastlines against more flooding exceed the costs of inaction in the 21st century. Rises in sea-level, combined with the threat of coastal flooding due to coastal storms, will likely lead to migration inland. The IPCC estimates that without adaptation, hundreds of millions of people will be forced to migrate inland as a result of coastal flooding by 2100.

Agriculture: Global average surface temperatures are rising and are expected to rise further, impacting the basic pillars of the global agricultural system: water and temperature. The IPCC is highly confident that agricultural systems will become increasingly vulnerable in semi-arid regions. Changes in precipitation patterns combined with rising temperatures are very likely to reduce crop yields, and increase disease pressure on crops and livestock. This will likely devastate many developing countries, and particularly Sub-Saharan Africa nations, where food shortages are already an issue. It’s important to consider that while decreasing crop yields in developed countries like the United States often lead to economic loss, decreasing crop yield and other changes to agriculture in many developing countries often lead to loss of life.

Displacement: Between 1990 and 2000, over 70 million people migrated to coastal zones. In the future, we are likely to see a dramatic shift in the opposite direction. As sea levels rise, severe weather becomes more frequent, and changing precipitation patterns make land unsuitable for crop growth, people have (and will) migrate (both permanently and temporarily) to other areas where conditions are more favorable. In many cases, people have migrated from rural to urban areas, which could become more common in the future. However, some groups living in rural areas, particularly in developing countries, do not have the resources migrate and will be more exposed to the impacts of climate change

Conflict: Conflict is caused by a number of factors. The IPCC predicts that as the impacts of climate change become more evident, its ability to create conflict will rise due to increased competition for resources, reduced quality of life, and increased incidence of migration that would not have otherwise occurred.  In addition, constraints on economic growth, and the potential for extreme weather and/or disasters to undermine the quality of public services may also increase the risk for conflict.

Economy: Overall, economic impacts are difficult to estimate, and vary given the number of unknowns and rates of change.  Despite the uncertainties, the economic impacts of climate change are expected to be significant. Some sectors will benefit (ex. energy demands increase for cooling), while other sectors will suffer (agriculture). As extreme weather becomes more prevalent, losses due to property damage are expected to increase. The IPCC estimates that the global economic losses due to climate change are expected to account for 0.2 percent to 2.0 percent of income in a 2.5°C temperature increase. As temperatures rise, the impacts due to climate change become more costly.  

Adaptation: No one is immune to the impacts of climate change, and as a result, regions around the world have taken some measures to prepare themselves. According the U.S. National Climate Assessment, 26 states in the U.S. have either completed, are writing, or have made recommendations to create state-wide adaptation plans as of 2012. Most of these plans are in the first stages of development. In other countries, adaptation efforts are focused on the greatest threats that are unique to their region. For instance, adaptation efforts in Australia have been focused on sea-level rise. In Asia, adaptation efforts have focused on agroforestry, water resource management, and protecting coastal mangroves.

Generating the most effective adaptation plans will require collaboration within all levels of government. This collaborative effort can help identify the vulnerabilities and risks that are unique to a given location. However, limited funding and uncertainties in climatic impacts are just a few of the barriers in the adaptation process that impede implementation.

Observations and climate projections indicate that we need to act quickly. The magnitude of social, economic, ecosystem, and adaptive changes projected to occur will strain society. In Part 3 of the series, we’ll take a look at whether there are viable pathways to addressing global climate change.

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