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Dow and Downing, The Atlas of Climate Change

BOOK REVIEW | | BY Michael Marien

This review  maps a valuable map: a compact overview that is arguably the best recent introduction to climate change, described as a “wicked environmental problem” that “touches everything, and everyone.”  Dow is a Lead Author in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change fifth assessment, due in 2013-2014, and Downing has been involved in all five of the IPCC global climate assessments.

First published in 2005, the Atlas notes “substantial changes surrounding the understanding and treatment of climate change…Uncertainty remains, but it is absolutely clear that forestalling action on that basis is to invite other problems and losses.  Uncertainty is no longer an excuse for inaction.  These are our key messages.”  Warming of the climate system is “unequivocal,” and very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.  Deep cuts (60-80%) in global GHG emissions are required to hold the increase in global average temperature below 2°C above preindustrial levels.  Action such as carbon trading is gaining ground, but is hardly adequate.  Adaptation is an imperative, but not a substitute for mitigation (the IPCC fourth assessment clearly stated that both are needed).
The Atlas is organized in seven parts, featuring 36 two-page overviews with global  maps, charts, data, and brief discussion.  Part 8 offers extensive footnotes to the above, a decent index, and a table of data for 197 countries showing total population, GNI per capita, the Human Development Index, water withdrawn as % of renewable freshwater resources, population in coastal cities as % of total, people at risk of sea-level rise, CO2 emissions, methane emissions, and carbon intensity or tons of CO2 per $1,000 GDP (China leads at 1,113, followed by Brazil at 591, the US at 442, and India at 403).
Part 1: Signs of Change
The first decade of the new millennium was the warmest observed, and global average temperature for 2010 tied for the warmest year on record.  Floods in Pakistan, Australia, and China; heat waves and forest fires in Russia and the US; drought in the Amazon; and record-breaking temperatures worldwide show that the climate is already dangerous.
1. WARNING SIGNS.  Among the thousands of warning signs of climate change, the array of extreme events in 2010 stand out, and “the pace of change appears to be accelerating.”
Record high temperatures were recorded in 19 countries, including Pakistan (53.5°C),
Iraq and Saudi Arabia (52.0°C), and Russia (45.4°C).
2. POLAR CHANGES.  Warming in the Antarctic Peninsula and Arctic is driving large-scale melting of ice that will have both local and global consequences.  Permafrost around the Arctic is generally warming, leading to collapse of roads and buildings in some areas.  [ALSO SEE “As Permafrost Thaws, Scientists Study the Risks” (New York Times, 17 Dec 2011, A1), warning that “gases from permafrost could eventually equal 35% of today’s annual human emissions.”]
3. SHRINKING GLACIERS.  Around the world, glaciers are losing mass and are in retreat, now at “twice the rate of loss in the previous decade, and over four times the rate of loss in the late 1970s.”  Glacial melting changes the flow of rivers, adding to water stress for millions of people.
4. OCEAN CHANGES.  Around the world, oceans are getting warmer and more acidic, affecting marine life.  Increased acidity will affect marine organisms with shells, decrease oxygen metabolism of animals, and alter nutrient availability.  Sea levels rose at an average rate of 1.8 mm/year from 1961 to 2003, and at 3.3 mm/year in the 1993-2010 period, generating concern that they will rise faster than previously expected.
5. EVERYDAY EXTREMES.  The frequency of some extreme events is increasing, e.g. the number of occasions when precipitation is particularly heavy.  Since 1950, the number of heat waves has increased, and there has also been a widespread increase in the number of warm nights.  But there is only low confidence at present that the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones and hurricanes have increased since the 1970s.  The still-recovering city of New Orleans suggests the types of losses that might be increasingly experienced as the planet warms.  But these impacts cannot all be blamed on climate change.
Part 2: The Changing Climate
For the past 5 years, the IPCC has concluded, with increasing confidence, that we are changing the global climate.  “Increasingly, the evidence points to a commitment to at least 2°C of global climate change.  That is raising alarm bells.”
6. THE GREENHOUSE EFFECT.  Intensification of the greenhouse effect is driving increases in temperature  and many other changes in the Earth’s climate.  The major greenhouse gases augmented by human activities are carbon dioxide (56%), methane (16%), tropospheric ozone (12%), halocarbons (11%), and nitrous oxide (5%).  The atmospheric lifetimes for some of these gases is 114 years for nitrous oxide (which is also “300 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat"), about 100 years for CO2, 45 years for CFC-11 halocarbons, and 12 years for methane.  GHGs emitted today will drive climate change long into the future, and the process cannot be quickly reversed.  Moreover, more solar radiation will warm the Earth’s surface, leading to extensive thawing of permafrost and perhaps a large release of methane (25 times more potent than CO2, although its lifetime is shorter).
7. THE CLIMATE SYSTEM.  The Earth’s climate system serves as a giant heat distribution system.  If climate change warms polar waters and/or decreases their salinity by adding fresher water from melting glaciers, “the difference in water density will decline and the circulation pattern is expected to slow down or even collapse.”  Temperature and rainfall patterns are expected to change with alterations in the circulation pattern.  Increased temperatures and water vapor in the air over tropical oceans will create improve spawning conditions for cyclones, hurricanes, and typhoons, and models suggest greater wind speeds and precipitation.
8. INTERPRETING PAST CLIMATES.  “Concentrations of CO2 and methane are higher than they have ever been in the last 800,000 years.  The Earth is warmer than at any time in the past 1,000 years.”  Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have risen from 315 ppm in the 1950s to 388.5 ppm in 2010, and is correlated with the rise and fall in global temperature over the past 160,000 years. [ALSO SEE “Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions in 2010 Show the Biggest Jump Ever Recorded” (New York Times, 5 Dec 2011, A4), noting a 5.9% rise according to the Global Carbon Project; however, this reflects a bounce-back from a 1.4% drop in emissions in 2009 due to the economic recession; emissions are expected “to return to something closer to the 3% yearly growth of the last decade, still a worrisome figure that signifies little progress in limiting greenhouse gases.  The growth rate in the 1990s was closer to 1% yearly.”]
9. FORECASTING FUTURE CLIMATES.  By the 2050s, global average temperature is almost certain to be >1°C higher than for 1960 to 1990, and may be as much as 6°C higher by the end of the 21C.  Warming in the higher latitudes and polar areas is likely to be greater.  Forecasts at the local level, including extreme events, are less certain.  Precipitation is likely to increase, but the pattern of where it will be wetter or drier is uncertain.
10. CLIMATE & SOCIAL CRISES.  Dramatic alterations called “tipping elements” could occur in the Earth’s biophysical system.  Examples include an ice-free Arctic in summer that accelerates warming, accelerated melting of the Greenland ice sheet, collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, melting ice shifts the Gulf Stream south in the Atlantic Ocean, dieback of the Amazon rainforest, boreal forests exposed to fire and pests, and an abrupt climate shift resulting in Sahara and West African monsoons.  Countries unable to adapt to the impact of climate change could see social and political upheaval.  By 2050, “the global burden of migration related to climate change might be 100 million.”
Part 3.  Driving Climate Change
Industrialized nations are responsible for most of the past emissions, and remain the major sources today on a per capita basis.  The legacy of greenhouse gases guarantees the inevitability of climate change for decades to come.  Developing countries have contributed little to historical emissions, but “will suffer an enormous burden of the impacts.”
11.   EMISSIONS PAST &  PRESENT.  The share of total CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and cement (1950-2007):  US 26%, Europe 26%, China 11%, Russia and Central Asia 11%, Japan 5%, South Asia 3%, South America 3%, and Africa 2%.
12.  FOSSIL FUELS.  Over three-quarters of CO2 emissions derive from burning fossil fuels; between 2000 and 2008, these emission increased by 29%.  Annual CO2 emissions per capita in 2008 were 18.4 tons in the US, 11.2 tons in Russia, 9.8 tons in Germany, 9.0 tons in Japan, 8.3 tons in the UK, 4.9 tons in China, 3.8 tons in Mexico, 1.9 tons in Brazil, and 1.3 tons in India.
13.  METHANE & OTHER GASES.  “An estimated 20 million trillion cubic meters of methane is trapped in permafrost ice and under-sea sediments in a form know as methane hydrates or clathrates.  Its release into the atmosphere would be catastrophic, but there is uncertainty about what would trigger a mass release.”  Nitrous oxide, most of it emitted by nitrogen-based fertilizers and livestock manures, is 300 times more effective than CO2  at trapping heat in the atmosphere; methane is 25 times more effective, but has a shorter average atmospheric lifetime of only 12 years.
14.  TRANSPORT.  International trade and travel, and greater dependence on motor vehicles, accounted for 22% of CO2 emissions in 2008.  Growing mobility of goods and people is the primary force behind the 45% increase in transport emissions from 1990 to 2007.
15.  AGRICULTURE.  A major source of GHGs, accounting for about a third of global emissions of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide.
16.  THE CARBON BALANCE.  Changes in carbon stored by plants and soils, and dissolved in the oceans, are contributing to climate change, which may in turn be accelerating the release of carbon.  About a quarter of the carbon released into the atmosphere over the last 150 years has arisen from changes in land use, notably deforestation.  The combination of climate change and land-use change can destabilize large carbon reservoirs and reduce the efficiency of natural CO2 sinks.
Part 4.  Expected Consequences
Current vulnerabilities to climate, and the way these stresses are compounded or ameliorated by other life circumstances, is the basis for understanding potential consequences, as warming trends affect ecosystems and resources in unprecedented ways.
17.   DISRUPTED ECOSYSTEMS.  Many species and ecosystems, already under stress from human development, may not be able to adapt to new climatic conditions and pressures; 90% of some 30,000 documented changes in biological systems between 1970 and 2004 are consistent with scientists’ expectations of the effects of climate change.
18.  WATER SECURITY.  Nearly 3 billion people live in areas where water demand outstrips supply, and up to 5 billion people may live in water-stressed areas by 2050.  Climate change may raise stress levels in some places, due to less annual rainfall, sea-level rise, more evaporation from surface water, or quicker melting of snow packs and glaciers.
19.  FOOD SECURITY.  Climate change may benefit crop production in some temperate regions, but threatens agriculture in many other regions.  Charts for 11 world regions show projected yield in 2030 for five major crops as a percent of average yield for 1998-2002; most regions show negative yields up to -10% for most crops (p.65).
20.  THREATS TO HEALTH.  Intense rainfall and flooding increases the risk of waterborne diseases, while drought and disasters reduce food supplies.  Warmer weather leads to increased heat stress and may lead to higher levels of air pollutants.  Effects of disasters and changing environments on mental health are a growing concern.
21.  RISING SEA LEVELS.  Thermal expansion of oceans and melting ice threaten many communities.  “A rise in global mean sea level of 1 meter will have drastic consequences.”  The Maldives will be almost completely inundated, as well as large parts of island groups in the Caribbean and Pacific.  Around the world, valuable agricultural land and wetlands will be lost, low-lying cities will be at risk from storm surges, and movement of sea water up rivers into freshwater aquifers will affect drinking water.  Mean sea level rose by about .15m during the 20C, with conventional projections of .50m by 2100.  But with large-scale releases from Greenland and Antarctica, sea levels might be 2 meters higher by 2100.  Far more serious sea-level rise is possible: if the Greenland ice cap melts, it would add 7 meters, and collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet would add a further 5 meters.  [ALSO SEE The Fate of Greenland by Philip Conkling et al. (MIT Press, April 2011; GFB Recommended Books).]
22.  CITIES AT RISK.  There are 136 port cities with populations >1 million; by 2070, the total value of the assets threatened by a climate change scenario of 0.5m sea-level rise could reach $35 trillion—ten times current assets.  Low-level coastal conurbations of >10 million people include Tokyo, Shanghai, Mumbai, Dhaka, New York, Los Angeles, etc.  Overall, about 145 million people live <1m above mean sea level.
23.  CULTURAL LOSSES.  Many cultural and historical sites are located in coastal areas threatened by sea-level rise and retreating coastlines.  Potential impacts on these sites are rarely represented in economic estimates of the cost of climate change.
Part 5.  Responding to Change
The challenges of responding are unprecedented, but not insurmountable.  Key technologies, finance, institutions, and leadership are coming forward to address the two goals of mitigation and adaptation.  Countries are preparing national strategies that include adaptation as a major priority, and local communities are active in reducing disaster risks.
24.   URGENT ACTION TO ADAPT.  As climate change becomes more marked, the need for adaptation will be ever greater, and more difficult.  In the short-term, the most serious climate impacts are disasters that increase vulnerability, making it even more difficult for people to adapt to future climate change.  “Current climatic disasters are estimated to cause population displacement of some 20 million people each year.”  Although the number of people affected continues to rise, disaster risk-reduction measures have resulted in fewer deaths, due to early warning systems evacuation plans, and shelters.
25.  BUILDING CAPACITY TO ADAPT.  Plans are being implemented at local, national, and regional levels, e.g. The California Adaptation Strategy developed in 2008, The Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Pilot Programme on Climate Resilience sponsored by the Global Environment Facility at the World Bank, the African Climate Policy Centre, and advanced adaptation plans in the UK and the Netherlands.
26.  CITY RESPONSES.  Cities worldwide are taking action without waiting for national governments, and the C40 Partnership seeks to share information and best practices.  London seeks to reduce emissions by 60% from 1990 levels by 2025, and Chicago has a similar goal of 25% reduction.  The Covenant of Mayors includes >1,900 European cities committed to 50% greenhouse gas reduction by 2020.  In 2011, Tokyo plans to launch the first cap-and-trade program in Asia.  Lagos held its second planning summit on climate change in 2010.
27.  RENEWABLE ENERGY.  Investment in renewable energy from solar, wind, and water more than doubled between 2006 and 2009, from $63 billion to $150 billion.  Over 2 million buildings in 76 countries are now using geothermal energy.  A world map shows national renewable energy promotion policies enacted by early 2010.
28.  LOW CARBON FUTURES.  Industrialization has tended to develop through “carbon intensity” industries, but growing awareness of greenhouse gases is driving use of more efficient technologies, unfortunately stymied by global barriers of intellectual property rights and proprietary pricing.
29.  COUNTING CARBON.  Allocating responsibility for reducing emissions and crediting efforts to reduce and store carbon involve detailed assessment processes.  One important example of a mitigation program requiring systematic counting is REDD+ (Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), which aims to increase the role of forest conservation in developing countries.  Another area of carbon accounting focuses on the growing number of emissions trading programs.
Part 6.  International Policy and Action
Reducing GHGs to safe levels requires international cooperation.  In the past few years, a consensus has been achieved to limit climate change to 2°C, although some are pushing for a global target of no more than 1.4°C.  “In contrast, voluntary commitments as of mid-2011 would result in global warming in the range of 2.5°C to 4°C.
30.  INTERNATIONAL ACTION.  Nearly all countries signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, agreed to in Rio in 1992 and coming into force in 1994, and have agreed to negotiate effective protocols.  The first addition to the treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997 and coming into force in 2005, set emissions reduction targets.
31.  MEETING KYOTO TARGETS.  Forty “Annex 1” industrialized and transition countries agreed to reduce GHG emissions to a combined average of 4.7% below 1990 levels sometime between 2008 and 2012.  About half of them have met or are close to meeting this commitment, although the agreed targets fall far short of stabilizing GHG emissions at safe levels.  Kyoto reductions were viewed only as a first step.
32.  LOOKING BEYOND KYOTO.  Commitments to reduce GHGs agreed in the Kyoto Protocol expire at the end of 2012.  Despite growing awareness of the urgency of reducing emissions, many issues remain unresolved.  A gap between the Kyoto commitment period and subsequent commitment periods is likely, because any new agreement requires ratification by >100 governments (ratification of the Kyoto Protocol took eight years).  The many shortcomings of the Kyoto Protocol are listed (e.g. reporting and verifying emissions), as well as weaknesses of the Dec 2009 Copenhagen Accord (e.g., not legally binding, no long-term vision on reductions for 2050, no specifics for monitoring and verification).
33.  TRADING CARBON CREDITS.  Trade that seeks to encourage investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy, and to share the burden of reducing emissions globally.  The three main types of carbon markets and exchanges are briefly described: 1) project-based markets (where buyers invest in projects or companies that reduce GHGs); 2) allowance-based markets (enabling large companies to purchase emissions allowances under schemes administered by regional or international bodies such as the EU Emissions Trading Scheme and three initiatives in North America); 3) assigned amount units that allow Kyoto Annex B countries to sell emissions that were permitted but not used.
34.   FINANCING THE RESPONSE.  “Finance for responding to climate change has improved dramatically over the past five years, but is still far from what is required.”  Briefly discusses the Clean Development Mechanism, the Climate Investment Fund of the World Bank, the UK’s Green Investment Bank, the Adaptation Fund, the REDD+ scheme, and the Hatoyama Initiative.
Part 7.  Committing to Solutions
Concentrations of GHGs in the atmosphere continue to rise, but remaining uncertainties no longer need to delay concerted effort.  “While we cannot forecast with precision the timing, location, and intensity of the consequences of climate change, it is clear that many impacts will be severe and some will result in disasters with tremendous human and economic losses.”  The longer we delay, the greater the risks and the more difficult it becomes to stabilize climate change at safe levels.  Also, higher temperatures bring greater risk of crossing over tipping points that shift systems into entirely new, irreversible states. 
35. PERSONAL  ACTION.  People around the world are making lifestyle changes to reduce GHG emissions at home, at work, and in their communities.  Actions of millions of people can add up to considerable savings, but will not be sufficient: pressure on governments and companies to take larger-scale collective action is necessary.
36. PUBLIC  ACTION.  “The policies, practices, and investments of governments and businesses will have the greatest impact on our future.”  Necessary reduction in emissions of 60-80% requires large-scale investment, and support of voters, employees, and shareholders.  Major corporate and government leaders at all levels have already brought about substantial reductions in GHG emissions, and there is increasing international competition to be the leader in emerging climate-friendly technologies and green jobs, encouraged by increasing participation of NGOs.
This fair-minded Atlas provides a notably compact overview of the complex and worrisome climate change issue, expected consequences, and necessary responses at personal, city, and international levels.  It is by no means a popularized “Climate Change for Dummies”:  the summaries, charts, maps, and tables of data require serious  engagement, but there is probably no better way to grasp this “wicked” problem in all of its dimensions.
For additional recent overviews, see America’s Climate Choices by the National Research Council (National Academies Press, Sept 2011, 144p; GFB BOOK OF THE MONTH, Oct 2011) and Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges, and Decisions by Katherine Richardson, Will Steffen, and Diana Liverman (Cambridge U Press, March 2011, 524p) a “synthesis of all knowledge relevant to the climate change issue” with contributions by >80 scientists.
Other publications in this unique and illuminating series of compact atlases, produced by Myriad Editions in Brighton UK (, focus on integrative global views of  food, water,  inequalities, sports, migration, the Middle East, China, the American empire, religion, human security, war and peace, women, population, tobacco, health, cancer, coasts and oceans (Spring 2011), and endangered species.

About the Author(s)

Michael Marien

Senior Principal, The Security & Sustainability Guide; Fellow, World Academy of Art & Science