UN warns of 'irreversible' climate change

The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) warned on Tuesday that greenhouse gas levels were rapidly reaching critical levels that could trigger “far reaching and irreversible changes” to the planet, its oceans and its biosphere.

In South Africa, meteorologists confirmed the country was witnessing an unprecedented increase in the frequency and intensity of weather “events”, and experiencing warming trends that were above the global average.

The UN’s COP17 climate negotiations have begun in Durban, where UN officials, NGOs and representatives of 194 countries are working to secure a binding agreement to deal with the factors driving climate change.
On Tuesday morning, the WMO released a provisional statement on the status of the global climate, showing that 2011 has been the 10th warmest year since 1850, when records began. This was despite the strong, cooling influence of the La Niña event that developed in the second half of last year.

The volume of Arctic sea ice in 2011 was also the lowest on record and the area covered by seasonal Arctic sea was the second lowest on record—35% below the 1979—2000 average.

The full report from the UN agency, which assesses global temperatures and provides a snapshot of weather and climate events in 2011, will be released early next year.

On Tuesday, WMO secretary general Michel Jarraud said: “Our science is solid and it proves unequivocally that the world is warming and that this warming is due to human activities.”

The organisation said that the La Niña event was one of the strongest in the last 60 years and was “closely associated” with extreme weather events seen this year, including the drought in east Africa and flooding in southern Africa, eastern Australia and southern Asia seen this year.

Local changes
Dr Linda Makuleni, of the South African Weather Service, confirmed that severe weather events were happening in South Africa. “Our research output shows there is an increase in frequency and intensity in weather events,” she said.

Makuleni said that South Africa had seen an increasing number of days with high maximum temperatures and a decrease in frost days. The rate of increase in temperature in the country is above the global average.

Peculiar rainfall patterns have also been observed. Makuleni said that this year there had been severe droughts in some parts of South Africa, for example the Eastern Cape, while other parts had experienced severe floods. “The research we are doing indicates that — this will continue,” she said.

Makuleni said the South African Weather Service is working with the WMO to come up with early warning services for the SADC region to deal with severe weather events and that the organisation now also maintains a national greenhouse gas inventory to monitor greenhouse gas levels and air quality.

Many climate scientists are frustrated with the slow uptake of scientific information and believe a greater sense of urgency was needed when it came to making policy decisions that can be implemented on a global scale.

Jeremiah Lengoasa, deputy secretary general of the WMO, said investments at national level are needed to help people understand the climate to which they will need to adapt in the future. He said early warning systems were essential to help countries cope with the extreme weather events. This would require investment in national meteorological and weather services, academic institutions and research centres.

According to Lengoasa, there were about 70 countries in the world that are not able to offer even basic climate information to their populations and policymakers.

He said just 1% of the proposed Green Climate Fund, which negotiators at COP17 are trying to set up and fund, would help scientists implement a global framework for climate services that could ensure that every country has access to the best information available to help policymakers to make informed decisions regarding adaptation strategies.

“What’s needed is leadership, investments and commitment,” he said.

For the latest COP17 news and special features view our special report.

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker is a reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She writes on everything from pop science to public health, and believes South Africa needs carbon taxes and more raging feminists. When she isn't instagramming pictures of her toddler or obsessively checking her Twitter, she plays third-person shooters on Xbox Live. Read more from Faranaaz Parker

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