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Climate Change and Extreme Events

The physical evidence for climate change continued to mount in 2005. It was one of the warmest years on record, second only to 1998, according to preliminary estimates from the US National Climatic Data Center (NOAANCDC 2005a). There were also an unusually large number of extreme weather events (Box 1) – a development that most scientists agree is consistent with climate change. Heavy rainfall and floods persistently struck China, India, and Eastern Europe, causing considerable loss of life and serious economic damage. In the Americas, a record number of storms and hurricanes formed during the Atlantic season. Heat waves and severe droughts also plagued many parts of the world. In the Arctic, a stunning reduction in sea ice was observed during the northern summer by US experts (NSIDC-NASA 2005).

The Munich Re Foundation, part of one of the world’s leading re-insurance companies, estimated that 2005 had witnessed the largest financial losses ever as a result of weather-related natural disasters, at more than US$200 billion (UN News Centre 2005). A considerable amount of new research confirmed the need for urgent concern. In November, two Science papers analyzed ice cores whose trapped gas bubbles encased climate data stretching back 210 000 years further than previously available. The data
showed that current levels of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are the highest in 650 000 years (Siegenthaler and others 2005, Spahni and others 2005).

Several climate models found that extreme weather might become even worse than previously anticipated. Scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies released a study in Science that found that the Earth is absorbing more energy per square metre than it is radiating back to space. The study also found that the Earth’s average global temperatures have not increased enough to account for this energy imbalance and it concludes that much of this energy imbalance has been stored in the ocean, with its full effect on the climate system still unrealized (Hansen and others 2005). Another study reported measurements, taken from ocean instruments moored along latitude 25N, suggesting that the “Atlantic conveyor” seems to be 30 per cent weaker than half a century ago. This system of currents carries warm surface tropical water in the Gulf Stream towards Western Europe, keeping the climate there warmer than it would otherwise be.

The weakening may be linked to previously observed decreases in salinity and water density in the North Atlantic, as melting ice brings more fresh water into the ocean (Bryden and others 2005, UNEP 2005). New data released in late 2005 also found that warming appears to be causing an increase in atmospheric water vapour (Soden 2005). Because water vapour is in itself a greenhouse factor, the results raised concerns about a positive feedback effect.

Box 1: A year of weather extremes
Drought across eastern and southern Africa and the Rockies in North America. Indonesia and Sri
Lanka experience flooding. Costa Rica, Panama and Guyana have heavy rainfall and flooding that
affects 200 000 people. Algeria has its heaviest snowfall in half a century.
Avalanches kill over 200 people in Kashmir after heavy snowfall. Heavy snow causes problems in
Tajikistan, Iran and much of Europe, especially in the Balkans, as temperatures fall to record lows.
Ongoing drought causes a state of emergency in southern Brazil and food shortages in Eritrea.
Flooding affects Algeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Madagascar and Angola, causing multiple deaths
and injuries and displacing thousands.
Persistent drought affects eastern Africa, including Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. Drought and water
shortages affect an estimated nine million people in Thailand.
Flooding displaces 25 000 people in Kenya and kills dozens in Ethiopia.
A heat wave continues in South Asia, with 400 deaths reported. Millions are affected by the worst
flooding in China in 200 years. Hundreds die from thunderstorms in Afghanistan, rainfall in India and
mudslides and flooding in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Monsoon rain causes serious flooding in Mumbai, India, breaking the country’s 95-year old record for
the most rain in 24 hours, and leaving 1 500 people dead. Heat waves are recorded in the US,
Europe and North Africa.
Hurricane Katrina becomes one of the most devastating disasters in US history after striking
Louisiana and Mississippi. Typhoon Matsa displaces over one million people in Zhejiang, China.
Droughts strike the Pacific Northwest, United Kingdom, France, and Spain, and exacerbate wildfires
in Portugal.
Hurricane Rita causes severe damage in Texas and Louisiana in the US.
Hurricane Stan takes 2 000 lives in Guatemala, while Hurricane Wilma devastates Yucatan, Mexico,
before striking Florida. With five further storms – Alpha to Epsilon – 2005 smashes all records for the
Atlantic hurricane season. Northern China suffers from severe flooding that temporarily displaces
350 000 people. Hurricane Vince is the first hurricane ever to approach Europe, making landfall in Spain.
Tropical storm Delta hits the Canary Islands, the first ever tropical storm to strike the islands.
By 31 December, there were 27 tropical storms (six more than the previous record of 1933), and
14 hurricanes, breaking the 1969 record of 12 hurricanes.
Sources: WMO 2005, NOAA-NCDC 2005b, UN News Center 2005, BBC 2005a, BBC 2005b, BBC 2005c, Weather.com 2006

Other research suggested that sea-level rise is occurring at an increased rate (NASA 2005).

Perception, politics and the global response.
There were signs in 2005 that concern over climate change was gradually translating into public interest and political action. At the corporate level, surveys showed many businesses in the US and elsewhere taking an increasing interest in the risks and opportunities resulting from climate change (Carbon Disclosure Project 2005). Many local and regional authorities in the US and other countries also emerged in 2005 as serious advocates for action (see North America section). At the international level, the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe in January 2005 produced a strong statement of intent from governments, setting out concrete steps to reduce risk and vulnerability to natural disasters through early warning systems and other mechanisms (ISDR 2005).

The Kyoto Protocol entered into force in February 2005. By September, 156 nations had ratified. The Protocol commits most industrialized countries and countries with economies in transition to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of five per cent for the period 2008–2012 compared with 1990 levels. The most recent (year 2003) data (Table 1) suggests that while some progress had been made, a considerable effort would be required over the remaining years by Parties to meet their targets (UNFCCC 2005). The first Meeting of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol, at its December 2005 meeting, adopted decisions on the outstanding operational details of the Kyoto Protocol, including a package of decisions known as the Marrakesh Accords. These include guidelines for how the Protocol will function,

such as those relating to the flexible mechanisms intended to help parties reach their emissions targets in a cost-effective way
and a compliance mechanism (IISD 2005). The December conference also took decisions to consider commitments for post- 2012 through two tracks. On one track, the Kyoto Protocol and its carbon trading markets will continue beyond 2012. Negotiations on future commitments for industrialized country Parties to the Kyoto Protocol must be completed in time to ensure that there is no gap between the first and second round of commitments.

A broader review of the Kyoto Protocol will also take place. On the other track, a “non-binding” global dialogue that includes the US has been initiated under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to discuss the long-term future of multilateral climate change efforts (IISD 2005). One emerging feature of multilateral and regional discussions in 2005 was a renewed commitment to developing and sharing new technology. The US, Australia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea, announced a regional technology-focused pact to help combat climate change (see Asia and the Pacific section).

The European Union launched the Emissions Trading Scheme designed to help EU member states trade in the right to emit greenhouse gases – a costeffective way to achieve the targets set out under the Kyoto Protocol. Seventeen countries joined the multi-country Methane to Markets partnership, an initiative encouraging cost-effective methane recovery and use as a clean energy source.

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