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New policy Brief: Assessing the Risks of Climate Change

10 November 2016

A new policy brief on Assessing the Risks of Climate Change was released during the 2016 UN Climate Change Conference (COP22) by the UN Secretary General’s Scientific Advisory Board. It makes the case that climate change can be framed as an issue of resilience and risk management, requiring a full assessment of all risks in order to prioritize mitigation and adaptation strategies, but that high degrees of change with lower probability in the short term are too often overlooked by scientists and, therefore, policy-makers as well. Consequently, a shift in approach is needed in order to fulfill the promise of the Paris Climate Agreement. It was presented by Carlos Nobre, member of the Board and National Secretary for R&D Policies at the Ministry of Science, Technology & Innovation of Brazil, during a session on “Co-producing knowledge for climate action” organized at the UNESCO Pavilion.

Rising temperatures have consequences for food, water, and energy security, ecosystems, infrastructure, human health and international/national security. And the higher the temperature, the greater the risk those climate change impacts will be serious and damaging and even irreversible and catastrophic. Even within the 2°C target, parts of the planet will experience high degrees of warming and risks associated to that.

What happens if we overshoot the 2°C target for limiting global warming? Addressing the extremes and risks associated with those extremes seems obvious – and it is to those in the business and insurance industries. In fact, when it comes to risks to human health the approach is to identify worst case scenarios using the best information available, thus beginning with an understanding of what we wish to avoid. “We need to use similar rational reasoning when it comes to assessing the risk of dangerous climate change and acting upon it” states the Board. “Science tells strongly that carbon dioxide concentrations should be lower than 350 parts per million if humankind is to be on the safe operating space, and we’re currently over 400 parts per million (ppm) and have reached an equivalent of 480 ppm when all Green House Gases are considered. We already know that we’re facing increasing risks of severe, unpredictable climate impacts, and yet the reductions to our emissions trajectory have been far too modest, or even negative. Our home is almost on fire and we are still reluctant to buy the insurance.”

The brief emphasizes the need to assess risks at higher degrees of climate change, and to develop a risk-based approach to communicate those risks to policy makers and the public.

The board recommends repeating assessments of, local, sectorial, national or global risks of climate change regularly and consistently, involving a wide range of experts (scientists, policy makers, political leaders, decision makers) and tracking how expert opinion changes over time.

Noting that the global consensus to limit temperature rise to 2°C and pursue efforts towards a 1.5°C target is the consistent response to risk reduction to preserve a safe climate for the Planet's future, it calls for a global carbon roadmap aligning science, technology and policy measures and behavioral changes to reduce emissions at the pace needed for Earth system stability.