Climate change: on the horns of a dilemma07 May 2014

Seldom does a single study on a solitary branch of science elicit global comment, transcending culture, politics, language, industry – indeed, society in general.

Yet so it was with the second report from the IPCC (Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change), published as we went to press. Why the attention? Quite simply because it speaks of a need for urgent action, mostly around cutting emissions, to mitigate inescapable risks that will certainly impact all of the above, everywhere.

As Ricardo-AEA adaptation knowledge leader Lisa Horrocks put it: "The IPCC Working Group report's conclusion – that the effects of climate change are already occurring on all continents – will 'raise awareness' of the pervasive risks."

And Dr Colin Brown, director of engineering at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said: "Global warming is a threat to human health, homes, food and water supplies. It is significant that [the report] states that the impact of global warming is now irreversible."

The IPCC flags that there is much industry, governments and individuals can do. But most believe the world is currently ill-prepared and that any impacts will be increasingly difficult to manage, if high levels of warming persist.

That presents a dilemma. Clearly, we need to redouble efforts to reverse climate-damaging behaviours and mitigate future effects. But we must also employ engineering ingenuity to adapt to forecast impacts, ready for when they come.

However, as recent history bears witness, both of these cost money and each is easier said than done. And there's the unpredictability – both of environmental outcomes and of populations' and individuals' reactions, driven by self interest.

For Horrocks, it's about fathoming people's, societies' and ecosystems' vulnerabilities around the world. "Understanding these can help us to prioritise our actions and funding," she advises.

For Brown, what matters now is that governments, industry and societies globally should not simply step up efforts to cut activities that lead (directly or indirectly) to greenhouse gas emissions. They should also "allocate more resources to adapt our infrastructures and communities" to the inevitable challenges that climate change will bring.

"Engineers and scientists are at the very heart of delivering mitigation and adaptation solutions," he observes. "Big issues like this grab the imagination of young people who will live through the changes. The report is looking for positives, and this is surely one of them."

Perhaps it is to his credit that Dr Brown has twisted a call to action out of impending disaster. But it's going to take more than encouraging mass study of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects to stem this flowing tide. Expect harsher legislation.

Brian Tinham, BSc CEng MInstMC FSOE FIPlantE FIRTE, Editor

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