What is Climate Change?
The term ‘climate change’ refers to a significant and lasting change in weather patterns for temperatures, precipitation levels and wind. It is important to understand that weather systems know a considerable amount of natural variation: no two days are the same, and a limited number of ‘extreme weather events’ such as record temperatures, periods of drought and floods can and do occur within this standard range.
We speak of climate change only when we observe changes that fall outside of that natural variation - in other words, changes that indicate a departure from the established weather system. These changes can take the form of higher or lower average indicators (for example a regional temperature rise), but may also include significant increases in extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and heat waves.
Climate change has historically been caused by a number of factors such as large volcanic eruptions, plate tectonics and variations in solar radiation. The changes observed today, however, are almost certainly linked to human activity. In its most recent Assessment Report, published in November 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that it is extremely likely (with 95%-100% certainty) that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have been the dominant cause of observed warming since the mid-20th century.
‘Human influence’ here points primarily to the increase in carbon dioxide emissions and their impact on the Greenhouse Effect. The Greenhouse Effect refers to the layer of natural gases that envelop the earth, trapping heat from the sun’s radiation and thereby keeping the Earth at a relatively steady and ‘comfortable’ temperature. Following the spike in carbon dioxide emissions since the industrial revolution, primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels, this layer is trapping more and more heat, leading to increases in global temperatures.
Contrary to popular belief, most of this global warming (an astonishing 93,4%) is not going into the atmosphere but into the oceans. Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber CBE, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, explains that “if the additional heat absorbed by the Earth’s oceans since the 1950s would be released, the atmosphere would warm by about 36°. It’s a tremendous time bomb, slumbering in the oceans.” In other words, climate change is already reaching far beyond the extreme weather events and temperature rises that have been experienced recently. Only decisive action can halt further escalation of these developments.
The impacts: 21st century projections
Rising emissions have contributed to global warming, rising sea levels, increased ocean acidification, loss of summer ice in the Arctic, extreme weather patterns, increased severity and frequency of droughts and storms, and greater temperature extremes. A business-as-usual scenario would see global temperature increases of around 4% by the end of this century, creating a vastly different habitat for all life on earth.
The points below sum up some of the key projected impacts we can expect with a 4° increase, taken from the related World Bank Report. They illustrate quite clearly how climate change may impact your country and constituents, and why urgent action is required.
- CO₂ Concentration and Ocean Acidification: Carbon emissions are absorbed by the oceans, increasing the water’s acidity levels. At the current rate this process is expected to destroy most coral reefs and significantly harm animals that live in shells, such as crabs and oysters. This has important consequences for marine life. Many other animals depend on these smaller ones for their survival, and endangering them will endanger the rest of the food pyramid – including the more than 1 billion people who depend on fish for their protein. Those depending on fishing for their livelihood will also face serious consequences: many oyster farms, for example, are already struggling to keep afloat as their harvests are increasingly disappointing. Finally, coral reefs form an important natural barrier against rising tides and floods; their disintegration and eventual disappearance will further increase the vulnerability of coastal populations.
- Droughts and Precipitation: Modeling projects that, in a warmer world, wet areas will become wetter and dry areas will become drier. In terms of regional projections this means that there will be an increase in rainfall in the tropics and in mid to high latitudes, and a decrease in the subtropics. Rainfall during extreme precipitation events is also expected to increase by a further 20 percent in a 4° temperature rise scenario. For the latter, the strongest increases were found for South Asia, Southeast Asia, western Africa, eastern Africa, Alaska, Greenland, northern Europe, Tibet, and North Asia.
- Tropical Cyclones: While it remains difficult to project whether the frequency of tropical cyclones will rise or remain the same, the intensity of such cyclones is projected to increase. This, in combination with increased population pressure and economic growth, makes that larger numbers of people and greater amounts of wealth will be exposed. For more detailed projections, please consult the IPCC’s Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change.
- Sea-Level Rise: Projecting sea-level rise is extremely difficult, complex and controversial. As the earth’s sea level is not flat, some regions will see bigger sea level rises than others. The IPCC report suggests that above-average rises can be expected along the northeastern North American and eastern Asian coast, as well as the Indian Ocean. Given the considerable number of large coastal cities in these regions, the risk of extreme floods and weather events, combined with dense populations and often inadequate planning, leaves these cities highly vulnerable. For many low-lying areas, such as the Pacific Small Island States, sea-level rises will lead to increased flooding, land erosion, and the degradation of fresh ground water resources.
It is worth noting that, in the months since the publication of the latest IPPC publication, new findings estimate sea-level rises which at a faster rate and at higher levels than those of the AR5 report.
The climate change impacts noted above have critical consequences on all aspects of human life and development. For an overview of key sectoral impacts, please consult the publication below.
- Ask your participants to describe climate change in their own words. How would they explain climate change to their fellow MPs, or to their constituents?
- Ask your participants what impacts of climate change they have experienced in their own communities. Have there been gradual changes, or extreme events? How do they expect their environment to change in the coming years?
- Are participants identifying similar challenges, or are there notable differences? Do different constituencies have different problems? Overall, what appear to be the most pressing challenges?
- Who's Who: Climate Change and Energy in Parliament
- Invite an Expert
- Organise induction sessions
- Educating citizens on climate change
- Ask parliamentary questions
- What are the observed impacts of climate change? Which areas are most strongly impacted, and how is the situation projected to develop in the near future?
- What climate change adaptation strategies are in place? What resources have been made available to tackle the most urgent needs, and how are those needs being met?
- Have official climate change mitigation targets been set, for example by cutting carbon emissions and investing in clean energy alternatives?
- What research is being carried out on climate change? What departments and agencies are working on these issues?
- How is climate change being tackled at the sub-national and local level?
- To what extent is your country meeting the population's energy needs? What percentage of the population remains without secure energy access?
- Is intermittency an issue? If so, on what scale, and to what extent is this deterring economic development and investments?
- What do projections indicate with regards to future energy demands? Will we be able to meet growing energy needs with our current generation capacity? How much added capacity do we expect to need, and what strategies are in place to secure this?
- What percentage of the current energy creation is generated through renewable energy? What research has been done to explore the potential of renewable energy development?
- Have official energy efficiency and green energy targets been adopted? Can these targets be reached in the timeframe set?
As a first action point, explore who does what on climate change in parliament and government. Is there a dedicated climate change and/or energy committee? Do multiple committees have climate change or energy issues in their portfolios? What government departments are involved, and what other institutions or agencies work on these issues? What about sub-national or local authorities?
Mapping out ‘who’s who’ on climate change is likely to open up new entry points for stronger parliamentary engagement on the topic. It will also highlight opportunities to streamline activities across different agencies, strengthen communication between relevant actors, and invite missing stakeholders to join the dialogue.
To make a valuable contribution to policy-making on climate change and energy issues, it is important that MPs have a basic understanding of the urgency of climate change, and its effects on their country and community.
To help improve awareness and understanding of climate change, you can invite an expert to brief the relevant committee. If this does not prove possible, you can organize a more informal meeting with a group of interested MPs. The French National Assembly, for example, invited an expert member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to introduce their report in the Environment committee. The presentation allowed MPs to familiarize themselves with the latest findings, ask questions and develop an enhanced appreciation of the extent and urgency of the issue.
Organising a ‘Climate Change Day’ (or half a day) can go a long way towards sensitizing MPs around climate change. This should be done with the support of the relevant parliamentary committee(s), and at a time when as many MPs as possible are able to attend.
The parliament of Cameroon organised an induction day to help MPs better communication with their constituents on climate change, and to discuss Africa’s positioning at the upcoming COP21 in Paris. Following this example, and depending on the context and timing of the induction day, sessions could outline projected climate change impacts, review adaptation projects and strategies, or explore alternative funding models.
In the face of a persistent lack of understanding of climate change and its causes and impacts, advocating for climate change action is difficult. Educational initiatives can go a long way towards correcting common misconceptions regarding climate change, and towards building more support and buy-in for mitigation and adaptation strategies.
At the occassion of a parliamentarians’ workshop on climate and sustainable development organised by the SADC Climate Services Centre, Zimbabwe Member of Parliament Maxwell Dube said information on climate change was not flowing to the grassroots level and the rural populace had developed several misconceptions. Dube urged fellow legislators to embark on educative programmes concerning climate change in their constituencies: “We should embark on programmes to educate our people on climate change. They really need to know that it’s human behavior that is to blame.”
Asking parliamentary questions is one of the key prerogatives of a parliamentarian. It allows you to get information from your government on any number of questions or issues, and to explore in more detail who is doing what and how. If you are just getting involved in climate change and energy issues, the following sample questions might be helpful (bear in mind that these may need to be adapted!):
On climate change:
This report provides a snapshot of recent scientific literature and new analyses of likely impacts and risks that would be associated with a 4° Celsius warming within this century. It is a rigorous attempt to outline a range of risks, focusing on developing countries and especially the poor.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change launched its latest report on November 2nd. As expected, the report reasserts the critical importance of urgent and decisive action on climate change, in particular the need for substantial cuts in carbon emissions. The summary for policy-makers provides an integrated view of climate change, and posits that it is extremely likely that climate change is a man-made phenomenon.
This publication by UNDP and Climate Parliament seeks to facilitate and encourage parliamentary action on renewable energy. The Guide explores the benefits of renewable energy development, presents an overview of renewable energy technologies and their respective applications, and offers concrete guidelines and tips for parliamentary action.
This new report by the World Bank Group provides concrete data to help policy-makers understand the broader potential of climate-smart development investments. It outlines how government actions can boost economic performance and benefit lives, jobs, crops, energy, and GDP - as well as emissions reductions to combat climate change.