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Only Ten Years to Tackle Climate Change, Experts Warn

The world has less than ten years to avoid runaway climate change, according to professor Tim Naish, a keynote speaker at this week’s ‘In the Eye of the Storm’ Pacific climate change conference.

Keeping world temperature rises to less than two degrees is considered important to avoid the worst effects of climate change. However, Naish warned: “The window of possibility for less than two degrees temperature rise will close in the next ten years.”

Naish, a professor of glaciology at Victoria University, and Professor James Renwick of Victoria’s School of Geography, were presenting empirical evidence on the long- and short-term implications of climate change.

Looking at the consequences of carbon dioxide and warming air temperatures, Renwick warned that the world is “going to see climate change for quite a long time yet, regardless of what we do”. Carbon dioxide concentration had “rocketed up in recent years,” and as a result temperatures were reaching historic highs.

The future also held more extreme weather, he said: “The wet will get wetter and the dry will get drier.” The weather patterns many nations relied upon for rain would be disrupted, and the warm air would carry more water, leading to more flooding and severe storms.

Potentially even more significant, Renwick said, was the oceanic temperature rise. Over 93% of warming occurred in the ocean, and this particularly affected the Pacific. Even slight changes in temperature had a severe impact on aquatic microorganisms and the corals that support aquatic food chains – and the fishing industry.

The greatest consequence of the warming seas was glacial melting, which “is going to cause us all a problem around sea level rise”, Renwick said. On the current trajectory, temperatures will rise by 4 or 5 degrees this century. The worst-case scenario would be an average temperature rise of over 10 degrees and complete glacial meltdown.

Naish also warned of the potential for catastrophic glacial meltdown. “We really don’t have a good handle on what the ice sheets are going to do,” he said. “If they do something unpredictable, ‘All bets are off.’” Some research suggested that runaway glacial melting had already begun, he added.

Melting glaciers and rising sea levels would have major effects on the Pacific, Naish said. Areas farthest from a melting ice sheet see the greatest sea level rise, so the rapidly melting Arctic, where average temperatures were rising quickly, would have the greatest effect on the South Pacific. “The Pacific will get up to 10% more sea level rise than the global rise,” Naish said. A total glacier meltdown at both poles could mean 20 or more metres of sea level rise.

Pacific Island nations were amongst the most vulnerable in the world to catastrophes of this nature, Naish added. Such countries typically lack the resources to brace themselves against the coming seas and prepare for increased flooding. In many places, one-in-one-hundred-year flooding was becoming an annual event. These floods were catastrophic, Naish said, bringing a halt to tourism, tainting water supplies, destroying homes and infrastructure, and damaging soil fertility.

Avoiding a drastic sea level rise “requires very invasive mitigation and potentially the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere”, Naish added. This should involve assistance for those island nations most affected by this crisis. “Sea level rise will continue for thousands of years based on decisions we’ll make on mitigation over the next few decades.”

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