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Regional initiatives key to tackling climate change

This article by Julian Hunt appeared on Reuters The Great Debate on December 5th, 2009

Julian Hunt- Julian Hunt is visiting professor at Delft University of Technology and formerly director general of the UK Meteorological Office; Elsie Owusu is with Just Ghana, based in Ghana and UK; Arun Shrestha is climate change specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Nepal; Charles Kennel is distinguished professor emeritus, University of California in San Diego. The opinions expressed are their own. –

Nobel Laureates, industries and political leaders are emphasising the seriousness of global warming and climate change and calling for global action to reduce the accelerating trends of greenhouse gas emissions.  But it is equally vital for regions to initiate their own policies to deal with the growing impacts of climate change on their environments and their communities.

Since 1997, the trends of weather and climate records reveal larger and more unusual variations in regions around the world, some unprecedented since the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago.  Among such warning signs are the disappearing ice fields around the poles and on all mountain ranges, more frequent droughts in Africa and now in wet regions (such as northeast India in 2006), floods in dry regions (as recently, in northwest India), and ice storms in sub-tropical China in 2008 (for the first time in 150 years).

Such extreme events threaten sustainable development around the world, natural environments are destroyed irreversibly, and economic growth is slowed.

Our proposition is that adaptation to climate change needs to build on existing knowledge and infrastructures in each region’s own setting. Forming loose collaborative networks will enable regional facilitation centres, their experts and decision makers to learn from one another and draw upon the resources of existing national and international databases and also programmes, such as those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the growing number of consortia linking major cities, local governments, and the private sector.

In May 2009, at the University of California, San Diego, experts from Asian regional centres based in India, Nepal and China compared their observed trends, long-range predictions and policies for regional climate and water resources with those of California.  The California Climate Action Team predicts that global warming will cause the loss of the state’s remaining glaciers and most of its snow pack by 2100, which will seriously affect the State’s approach to water management.  But some coastal zones are cooling as marine air is drawn into a warming Central Valley.  Politics for water, agriculture, and ecosystems are affected zone-by-zone.

The Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau are also losing ice and snow, caused by the direct effects of global warming, and also the indirect effects of aerosols from industry, traditional cooking, more intensive agriculture, and wind-blown natural dust.  Water supplies for a billion people are threatened. Regional environmental polices for the indirect effects should benefit both the local climate and health as well as agriculture.  But there may be also global benefit as aerosols from Asia are carried by winds around the globe and impact the snow-pack of California’s Sierra Nevada.

In the West African coastal zone the observed rise in temperature and decrease in rainfall is affecting agriculture and the environment of the growing urban areas.  Just as in California, these trends differ significantly from those further inland – another example of the need for local data related to local policies.  But in the Sahel and in India regional actions are benefiting the local climate and environment through extensive tree planting.

The global computer model results assembled by the IPCC provide broad guidance about temperature change at regional levels.  But their predictions about future rain and snow are not reliable enough for planning at the regional scale. Thus improved projections of past and future trends are needed on a region-by-region basis. More detailed simulations, statistics of long-term cycles, and a close look at local trends are required.  Sizeable margins for error are therefore necessary in planning for water management and agriculture. Regional centres, by communicating and interpreting these predictions and uncertainties can contribute to local adaptation policies.

Collaborative studies this year between Ghana, Uganda and UK suggest that non profit or charitable organisations might be able to facilitate with minimal cost the sharing of expertise and the exchange of data, for example in private agriculture, tourism and conservation projects.  Anthropologists studying climate change have pointed out that observations of farmers and villagers are also useful for monitoring and can provide a unique perspective of climate change over years and decades.

Since 1997 the availability of rainfall and environmental data is improving in many countries, through the urgings of the World Meteorological Organisation.  But restrictions about the international exchange of observational data and warnings about natural hazards are partly being overcome by regional collaboration, for example, in improved international warnings along the Brahmaputra river in India and Bangladesh.

In the U.S., a recent report points out the value of non-official centres, such as a severe storm centre in Oklahoma, which gives independent advice to communities and businesses, while relying on government programmes for much of the data.
In Brazil, a regional data centre is providing current data and predictions about agriculture and deforestation and informs legislation about policy options.  In China, where provinces require targets for power station construction, regional environmental and climate change centres are well developed.

A network of regional centres is needed to support national and sub-regional climate initiatives and to facilitate international funding and technical cooperation. The cumulative effect of regional action may well determine the speed and effectiveness of global responses to climate change.

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