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How can earth's vital signs help us to monitor the impacts of climate change?

26 January 2017

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Reported by Anna Fee, NERC-funded CSaP Policy Intern (January-April 2017).

The 2017 Climate Change Seminar Series kicked off in January with a talk on how understanding earth’s “vital signs” could aid efforts to adapt to, and mitigate, climate change.

In his talk, Chris Rapley – Professor of Climate Science at UCL – explained that there were as many as 35 key parameters climate observers use for measuring climate change, which can be confusing for policy makers and the public. Previously, global mean surface temperature had been used as an indicator of climate change. However, it often failed to convey the threats and impacts to the public.

In the technological age we live in, we could easily access information on vital signs through our smart phones’.

Having access to specific vital signs using the technologies we already have e.g. smart phones, would make it easier for scientists to monitor climate change and to deliver clear climate change messages to the public.

Vital signs already in use by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme include global land surface temperature anomalies, atmospheric carbon dioxide, arctic minimum sea ice extent and global mean sea level.

Professor Charles Kennel - Director Emeritus of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography – reinforced the idea that global temperature is a misleading indicator of climate change which can lead to faulty decision-making.

He reported that one of the innovations which emerged from the 2015 Paris Agreement was the recognition of the role played by businesses, investors, cities and provinces in driving and delivering climate action. He added that governments’ political support will be informed by perceptions of climate change and risks to national interest and funding for climate adaptation will be allocated accordingly.

Failure to mitigate or adapt to climate change is the single largest risk to the global economy’ - World Economic Forum, Davos 2016.

Professor Kennel explained that scientists needed to communicate the impacts of climate change to decision makers in terms of risk. The 2015 report by Sir David King et al ‘Climate Change: a risk assessment’, expressed the need to identify direct risks, systemic risks and the likelihood of system collapse as a result of climate change. Vital signs such as ocean acidity, greenhouse gases and precipitation could help to predict these risks.

A podcast of the seminar is available below.

For information on the other seminars in this series, please click here.

(Banner Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr)

Anna Fee

Centre for Atmospheric Science, University of Cambridge

Professor Charles Kennel

University of California San Diego

Professor Christopher Rapley

University College London (UCL)