This past Monday (March 31), Working Group II of the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presented its report:  Climate Change 2014:  Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.  Copies of the two-volume report can be viewed at the IPCC.  The IPCC acts under the auspices of the United Nations and is composed of over 800 scientists and researchers from around the world who evaluate climate change data.  This the IPCC’s fifth such assessment since beginning in the 1990s, and it marks a significant shift from an effort to prevent or substantially limit climate change to a focus on issues that involve coping with or adapting to changing conditions.  In that sense the report seems to acknowledge for the first time that substantial international action that could effectively avoid or limit climate change is unlikely and perhaps too late.  The report indicates that the time scale of climate change is increasingly upon us, and even if some substantive agreement about climate change policies could be reached between the world’s industrialized nations, the likely impacts of those agreements would not prevent additional climate effects in the near term.  Impacts have already become notable and will only increase over the next few years.

A general overview of the report, including background information on the IPCC, can be found at the United Nations News Centre.

The IPCC report has already prompted several articles and comments about the apparent practical effects of climate change.  For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review noted the report’s focus on the impacts on agriculture and likely changes in crop yields.  Major crop yields for corn, wheat, and rice are expected to begin to decrease at least by 2030 and reductions are likely to continue at a rate of 2% per decade thereafter.  While this will have an impact on food prices for many developed nations, the more immediate impact in poor countries will be on actual availability.

The greater focus by the IPCC on adaptation to climate change reflects both the apparent limits of international cooperation and a pragmatic need for action at a more localized level driven by the speed and particularized impacts of climate change.  In effect, there is a growing acknowledgement that changes are inevitable, at least in the near term, but that impacts will vary depending on location.  For example, in North America, the likely impacts will be increased risks of flooding in some areas and prolonged drought and wildfires in others.  And responses to these changing conditions may be those that help adapt to these types of local impacts.  The report seems to conclude that such actions are now likely to be necessary regardless of progress on longer range actions that may reverse some of the causes of climate change.  While the debate over the causes may well continue within and between governments, the fact of the conditions, and coping with their results, increasingly seems to be a matter of practical response rather than political philosophy.