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Texas Standard

Amid troubling UN climate report, Texas ecologist says we have to act fast to adapt to a warming planet

sam_houston_national_forest.jpg
William L. Farr/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
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The Sam Houston National Forest in Texas is a natural "carbon sink" that traps carbon in the atmosphere, and is essential for mitigating climate change.

Climate change is well underway, according to the report, but we can turn to nature to help buffer some of the worst effects.

From Texas Standard:

On Monday, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a new report, sounding the alarm again on the rapid warming of the planet. The publication asserts, in part, that the impacts of global warming are now simply "irreversible."

It builds on an installment released back in August, but this time focusing on the real-world impacts of climate change, and in what ways humanity can and can't adapt to it. It’s a dire message, highlighting how we’ve passed the point of stopping some of greatest consequences for our ecosystems.

But there are still ways that humanity can prepare, says Camille Parmesan, adjunct professor at the University of Texas' Jackson School of Geosciences, and laureate in the French government’s Make Our Planet Great Again program. There are options but she says we have to act fast.

Listen to the interview or read the transcript below to learn more.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: What did this report look at compared to last year's report, and what does it actually add to our understanding of climate change?

Camille Parmesan: What's really different about this report are two things: One is that since the last report, which was seven years ago, now we have enormously more information about changes that are actually being observed, not just models, not just predictions, but what we're actually seeing.

The second big difference is the government's actually requested that we provide them with solutions, which is a very new thing for IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]. And so we're not meant to be policy prescriptive,but what we did is we looked at a lot of a range of options and looked at the positive and negative – positive benefits and negative consequences if they're not done very well.

Another part of this report focuses on adaptation. Can you explain a little bit more about how human adaptation can mitigate some of the worst effects of climate change, and perhaps ways it can't?

That was one of the big focuses of this report, which is very different. And what we found is some of the options are gone. So, for some low-lying islands and some coastal areas, there really is not much we can do about sea-level rise, which has already started and will continue to go on, really, regardless of what humans do about their emissions.

But what we found is that there are still a lot of options available to us, but that the changes that we're already seeing are so widespread and so overwhelmingly negative that we emphasize that while we do have a window of opportunity, it's already quite a small window and it's getting smaller all the time. So we do have options, but we need to take action on them very, very quickly.

And a lot of those options at this point are not technological fixes. The technology will get there eventually to help us remove carbon from the atmosphere. But right now, it's not there. So what we can do right now? One of the most effective ways to help humans adapt is actually to turn to nature to get help. Natural systems restore them to health so that they are better sinks of all this carbon that we're putting out.

You mentioned that there's a rapidly closing window in a variety of scenarios. Could you give us an example?

We're already seeing species going extinct specifically because of climate change, not because of habitat loss. And perhaps even more worrying is we're already seeing ecological processes being put into place in these very high-carbon systems around the world.

Intact old-growth Amazon rainforest, that historically has always been a wonderful carbon sink, removing more carbon from the atmosphere than it puts out. Some of these areas are now releasing more carbon than they suck up, and this is because of droughts causing tree mortality in the boreal forest. Huge insect infestations are causing the trees not to be able to be to grow very well. And we're seeing drying of peatlands and thawing of permafrost that, again, these systems used to be fabulous at sucking carbon up and storing it. And now some of them are switching to emitting more carbon than they store.

And getting these systems to working well again is imperative because humans can change what we do. We can control our actions, but we cannot control the biosphere. And what we're seeing is that climate change is putting into place some processes that increasingly will become very difficult to reverse and make it very difficult to stay down to a low level of global warming.

What do you want the public and policymakers to take away from this report?

I'd say really a key message of this report is we do have some options right now for adaptation, but we need to very quickly act not only to reduce emissions, but also to help suck up more carbon, and that involves restoring our natural systems and human adaptation needs to start involving the natural world, as well as greening-up our cities, restoring natural river waterways so that these increasing flood events and heatwaves have some buffering to them.

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