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Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers contribute to prestigious climate report

Benjamin Preston

Thomas Wilbanks and Benjamin Preston, both of the Climate Change Science Institute (CCSI) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), are among the 309 coordinating lead authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC's) Working Group II (WG II) report. The report, which was released in Japan on March 31, found that climate change isn't just a problem for future generations, but also impacts humans in the present day.

"Approximately every five years leading scientists like Tom and Ben convene from around the world to assess the scientific, technical, environmental, economic and societal vulnerabilities to a changing climate," said CCSI Director Jack Fellows. "These assessments have made important contributions to climate policies, and the IPCC and its scientists were recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007."

Changing climates—whether from natural variability or anthropogenic sources—are putting water supplies under stress and the world's food supply at risk. These impacts hold serious implications for the poorer nations of the world, potentially leading to mass migrations and violent conflict over limited resources. Even in America the mountain snowpack in the West is declining, endangering the region's water supply. In Alaska huge chunks of ice are breaking off glaciers and crashing into the sea, spurring massive waves that erode the shoreline and force people from their homes. There are changes affecting the entire world as well. In the Arctic melting ice is releasing organic material that decays into greenhouse gases, which are likely to further warm the planet.

Thomas Wilbanks

Since the IPCC issued its 2007 report, it has found evidence that governments and businesses around the world are making extensive plans to adapt to potential turmoil created by climate change. Although the impact of global warming may be moderated by factors like economic or technological change, future disruptions are likely to be severe. The IPCC reports, including WG II's, are expected to carry considerable weight next year as world leaders try to craft a new global warming treaty.

Preston, deputy director of the CCSI, is one of three coordinating lead authors for Chapter 16, "Adaptation Opportunities, Constraints, and Limits," of the IPCC WG II report. The chapter assesses the latest research on the opportunities and barriers associated with using adaptation, or actions taken to help communities and ecosystems cope with changing climate conditions, as a strategy for climate risk management. It includes discussions of factors that are particularly important for enabling adaptive responses by society or natural ecosystems, as well as financial, social, and technical factors that inhibit or prevent adaptive responses among different global regions and economic sectors. Preston was nominated as a lead author by the United States and Australia and subsequently elevated to coordinating lead author of Chapter 16 by the IPCC WG II Technical Support Unit. In addition, he was featured in a video on the WG II, in which he talked choices made under the uncertainty of climate change and new technologies that can help mitigate climate disturbances.

Wilbanks, an ORNL Corporate Research Fellow and member of the lab's CCSI and Environmental Sciences Division, is one of two coordinating lead authors for Chapter 20, "Climate-Resilient Pathways: Adaptation, Mitigation, and Sustainable Development," of the WG II report. He is also a lead author of the WGII Summary for Policymakers and the Technical Summary. According to Chapter 20, climate change is a growing threat to sustainable development, calling for the development of "climate-resilient pathways." Such pathways combine mitigation and adaptation, which reduce the severity of climate change, with actions that improve the capacities of institutions to resolve tradeoffs for effective risk management. If climate change turns out to be more severe than anticipated, some development impacts are likely to exceed the limits of incremental adaptation, requiring transformations of affected systems to ensure their sustainability. For example, if sea-level rise is moderate, then a coastal community might be able to cope by making incremental infrastructure improvements. However, if the change is severe, that community may have to relocate. The chapter notes that things can now be done to move toward such pathways that also provide other kinds of benefits for sustainable development and suggests an iterative process of monitoring, evaluation, and risk management that incorporates learning and innovation.

WG II contributors from other DOE labs include Douglas Arent, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Chapter 10, "Key Economic Sectors and Services"; Richard Moss, Joint Global Change Research Institute, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Chapter 15, "Adaptation Planning and Implementation"; Dáithí Stone, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Chapter 18, "Detection and Attribution of Observed Impacts"; Phil Duffy, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Chapter 21, "Regional Context."



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