Problems, Impacts, Solutions:


Let's leave our children a Living Planet

Global warming is not a distant, future threat.

In fact, there is compelling evidence that a shift in our planet's weather patterns and changes in climate are already underway. A huge array of data from all over the world clearly signals that change is occurring. From droughts to melting glaciers and ice caps, from dramatic flips in ocean currents to regional increases in extreme and violent storms, the indications are:

1995 was the hottest year in history. 1997 looks to be a close second

The evidence of global warming and its consequences are accumulating rapidly and measurably, and require the world's immediate attention.

The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of 2,000 of the world's leading scientists, concluded in 1995 that global warming is real, serious, and accelerating. They determined that the most likely cause is primarily from humans burning coal, oil and gasoline and increasing the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases trapped in the Earth's atmosphere.

At the end of 1997, the city of Kyoto, Japan, will host government negotiators from 167 nations tasked with crafting an agreement that should slow the pace of global warming and mitigate its impacts by limiting carbon dioxide emissions world-wide. According to a remarkably diverse accumulation of scientific data drawn from pollen records, ice cores, tree ring analysis, temperature records, satellite imagery, atmospheric measurements and other tools and techniques, climate change is already affecting every region and most nations:

Taken together, these large-scale global changes offer compelling and contemporary evidence that an unprecedented shift in our climate is already underway. Clearly, there is work the world can, and must, do today to protect our planet from global warming.

Five years ago, industrialized nations agreed to stabilize their CO2emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. But between 1990 and 1996, emissions among the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations actually rose by 7.8 percent. In December 1997, at the United Nations Climate Summit in Kyoto, governments should adopt legally binding reduction targets that will bring carbon dioxide emissions significantly below 1990 levels by the year 2005. The European Union has proposed reduction targets of 7.5 percent by 2005 and 15 percent by 2010. But neither the US nor Japan, two of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases, have signaled that they are willing to propel current negotiations toward an agreement for significant reductions of greenhouse gases by 2005.

In addition to increasing political will and discipline, private sector commitment will be key to the world's success in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Lowering emissions is only possible if industry agrees to develop and adopt energy efficient technologies, if the public buys and uses energy efficient cars, appliances and homes, and if the development and use of alternate and renewable energy sources increases rapidly around the world.

The evidence and course are clear: global warming is already acting on our planet; it is time to recognize its effects and respond.

In the last 20 years Adelle penguin populations have declined as the sea ice has retreated.
It is now nearly two years since 2,000 of the world's leading scientists, representing the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), concluded that this era of warming "is unlikely to be entirely natural in origin" and that "the balance of evidence suggests a discernable human influence on global climate"
The main human influence is the burning of fossil fuels, which increases the concentrations of CO2, a "greenhouse gas" in our atmosphere. CO2 and similar gases such as methane, trap solar heat in the air, and as a consequence, heat the surface of the planet. In addition to attributing global warming to human causes, the scientists projected accelerating increases in the earth's temperature and rises in sea levels.

The main source of man-made greenhouse gases is the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gasoline, which release carbon dioxide (CO2). Other sources include deforestation, which also releases CO2, and agriculture, which releases methane and nitrous oxide. Levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are 30 percent above those of 200 years ago. Methane levels have more than doubled. Once unleashed into the atmosphere, these gases have lifetimes of many years--around 100 years in the case of CO2.

Discussion of global warming as a future threat tends to ignore the fact that the evidence of global warming and its consequences on habitat, wildlife and human health can be seen around the globe today. Countless studies have been published showing what effects climate change might have in the coming years and decades. This new "State of the Climate Report" concentrates solely on those impacts of global warming that can already be seen to be happening. Each small change or strange weather event may not amount to much on its own, but when these impacts are viewed as part of a massive, world-wide pattern of change, then a new picture emerges. It is that picture that this report seeks to display. All regions and most nations have already been affected.


Average global temperatures at the planet's surface are rising dramatically. The five warmest years since global records began in the mid-19th century, have all occurred in the 1990s, and ten of the eleven warmest will have been since 1980. 1995 was the warmest year to date. 1997 may be the second warmest. No serious scientist doubts the existence of the global warming trend of recent decades.

Nights are getting warmer 50 percent faster than days. The US National Climatic Data Center reported in July 1997 that the temperature range between day and night is decreasing for most of the world, with the strongest change in the Northern Hemisphere's winter. Frosts are fast disappearing in many regions. This effect comes about because greenhouse gases are especially effective at trapping heat at night.

Spring in the Northern Hemisphere is coming at least a week earlier than it did 20 years ago, says Charles Keeling of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California. The change shows up in the annual spring dip in CO2 concentrations as plants in the Northern Hemisphere consume CO2 to put on growth. Migration patterns of songbirds and reindeer (caribou) are already changing in response to the timing of spring. At least 20 species of songbirds have been shown to be nesting and laying their eggs more than a week earlier in the UK as a response to warmer conditions.

Many kinds of weather have become more extreme. The Climate Extremes Index of the US National Climatic Data Center has been consistently high since the late 1970s, during a period of intense global warming. "It is likely that the increase is due to man-made factors," says Thomas R. Karl, senior scientist at the Center. The US has experienced a significant increase in extreme rainfall events since 1911, for example. There is also evidence of more frequent depressions along the east coast of Australia, and of increased tropical cyclones in the southwest Pacific Ocean to the north of New Zealand. Economic losses from worldwide weather-related disasters--droughts and hurricanes, floods and heat waves--reached an all-time high of $60 billion in 1996.


The world is in the grip of the biggest thaw since the end of the last ice age.

There is growing evidence that the world is in the grip of the biggest thaw since the end of the last ice age some 10,000 years ago. It is the most unambiguous signal yet of the impact of pollution on the planet's climate. We have hit the defrost button from the Arctic to the Himalayas, the Alps to the southern seas.

The Arctic, says climatologist Betsy Weathered, of the University of Colorado, "may be the most dynamic and responsive region on Earth to climate change."

In 1995, the UK Meteorological Office reported that much of Siberia was 3 degrees Celsius warmer than earlier this century. Arctic soils have warmed by up to 4 degrees Celsius. Average temperatures at nine North American weather stations in the Arctic have risen by 5 degrees Celsius since 1968. Much of the Arctic Ocean has warmed by 1 degrees Celsius or more since 1987, and more than 5 percent of its sea ice has disappeared in the past 15 years.

The Arctic climate is known to be naturally variable, but such changes are unprecedented. European researchers have examined a thousand-year record of summer temperatures preserved in the annual rings of Siberian larches, and found that average summer temperatures have been at their highest during the 20th Century. "The trend seems to be accelerating. Tree growth in the Urals is exploding. It does suggest a major warming," says team head Keith Briffa of the University of East Anglia in England.

The thaw is triggering major ecological impacts throughout the Arctic. In the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, for instance, the porcupine caribou herd, which currently numbers 150,000, goes north to calf each spring. Once, the migration coincided with maximum plant growth in the refuge. Now, even though the herds move earlier in the year, the grasses have often gone to seed before they arrive on Alaska's North Slope.

Permanently frozen land, known as permafrost, is melting in Siberia, Canada and Alaska, causing chaos in city and countryside alike. The permafrost zone has moved up to 100 kilometres north in parts of Canada in the past century. Thawing permafrost is already causing roads and buildings to subside, railway lines to buckle and clumps of trees to fall into sink holes in many parts of the Arctic.

At the other end of the Earth, the map of Antarctica is changing. The Antarctic peninsula, which juts north towards South America, has warmed by 2.5 degrees Celsius in 40 years. Many of the large floating ice shelves connected to the peninsula are breaking loose and melting. Two-thirds of the Wordie ice sheet--an area the size of Luxembourg--have disappeared in 30 years. A 1,300-square kilometre section of the nearby Larsen A shelf collapsed and broke into thousands of icebergs in 1995. Its companion, Larsen B, is riddled with cracks and faces a similar fate. As the ice sheets warm, they reach a critical temperature above which they rapidly collapse and float away.

On the islands of the Antarctic peninsula, the Adelie penguin population has declined in the past 20 years as the sea ice, from which they feed, has retreated. At Campbell Island, rockhopper penguins have declined by more than 90 percent. Other mysterious disappearances include sea lions from around the Falkland Islands and elephant seals from the South Shetland Islands--probably because the warmer water is driving away food such as krill, a kind of shrimp. Researchers reported in mid-1997 that krill populations had collapsed due to warming.

Melting ice is now a global phenomenon, and glacier melt is one of the best indications that the climate is getting warmer. Europe's Alpine glaciers have lost half their volume since 1850 as the region has warmed, according to Wilfried Haeberli of Zurich University, director of the UN's World Glacier Monitoring Service. Typical is the Gruben glacier on the slopes of Fletschhorn in southern Switzerland. It has been melting since the middle of the last century, but the retreat has dramatically accelerated during the 1990s. Today its toe is 200 metres further up the mountain than at the start of the decade. "There is no doubt that world-wide warming is responsible for this," says Haeberli. In neighboring Austria, 90 percent of glaciers show "substantial" retreat. As glaciers retreat they have caused intense chemical weathering of rocks, creating a dramatic flush of pollution into lakes, says Roland Psenner of the University of Innsbruck. Sulphate pollution, normally associated with acid rain, has increased fourfold in some Alpine lakes.

In Alaska, the Columbia Glacier, a river of ice covering 1,100 square kilometres, has retreated by 3 kilometres in the past 15 years. And the 5,000 square kilometre Bering Glacier, the world's largest temperate glacier, has retreated by 10 kilometres this century, with losses reaching an astounding one kilometre a year in the 1990s. Further south, Paradise Glacier, in Washington State's Mount Rainier National Park, is receding, and in Glacier National Park, Montana, many small glaciers have disappeared in the past 30 years. Dan Fagre of the US Geological Service predicts there will be no glaciers in Glacier National Park by 2030.

Tropical glaciers are also melting fast. In Africa, the volume of ice on Mount Kenya has decreased by 40 percent since 1963. Similar retreats are occurring in the Venezuelan and Peruvian Andes, where the speed of retreat has increased sevenfold since the start of the 1980s. Glaciers around Mount Jaya in Irian Jaya, part of the island of New Guinea, have shrunk from 19 square kilometres to 3 square kilometres since 1936.

Melting can be lethal, making firm ice brittle, unleashing rock falls and creating large water lakes near glaciers. Glacial lake overflow has already become more frequent in the Himalayas because of global warming. Residents of the Nepalese village of Manjo, near Mount Everest and just outside Sagarmatha National Park, live in fear of a massive burst from Imja lake. Says geomorphologist, Telji Watanabe, from Japan's Hokkaido University, "It's very dangerous. Very simple calculations say that there will be an outburst at Imja lake in the next five to six years."


Tropical temperatures are rising, says David Rind of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York. Indeed, temperature changes in the tropics were the single largest reason for the surge in global average temperatures during the 1980s. The tropics are also becoming drier, especially in the already arid regions stretching east from the Sahel in Africa, as far as Indonesia.

Since the mid-1960s, average rainfall in the Sahel and much of the east and south of Africa has declined sharply. The past decade in southern Africa has been both the warmest and driest this century. The growing seasons of 1991-92 and 1994-95 were among the five driest years this century, causing crop failures, water shortages, killing wildlife and threatening human health.

In the oceans, damage to coral reefs appears to be increasing as ocean waters throughout the tropics become warmer. Coral reefs die off if the water becomes too warm. A rise in temperature of 1 degree Celsius for four weeks will cause many corals to expel the micro-algae that live in their cells. The algae provide the coral with both their coloration and their food. The process, called coral bleaching, became increasingly common in the Caribbean and South Pacific as oceans warmed in the 1980s. By the 1990s there were around 10 bleaching events a year, affecting 20 countries. Usually the coral recovers in the following cool season, but if all algae are lost the coral will die. Some Galapagos reefs hit by bleaching in 1983 have yet to recover.

The tropical oceans, Rind says, were up to 0.75 degrees Celsius warmer during the 1980s than in the previous three decades. This appears to have affected the intensity and frequency of the largest single influence on tropical climate--a cyclical weather phenomenon called El Nino in the tropical Pacific Ocean. El Nino events typically occur every three or four years, when the winds and currents across the equatorial Pacific switch direction, pushing a pool of very warm water out east across the Pacific towards the Americas. After about nine months, the reverse currents falter and the system returns to its normal state.

In recent years, El Ninos have become more frequent, intense and devastating. El Nino has brought droughts to Australia and Indonesia, and heavy rains and floods to the normally arid western shores of the Americas, from Peru to California. El Nino has also coincided with intense droughts in India, northeast Brazil and much of Africa, and with torrential rains in Japan and the eastern Mediterranean. During June 1997, dramatic increases in water temperature were recorded in the Pacific Ocean, signaling what many scientists believe may turn out to be the strongest El Nino this century.

Two decades of frequent and intense El Nino events, coupled with a near-continuous warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean, is, statistically, a once in 2,000 year event, according to Kevin Trenberth of the US Government's National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and may well have been caused by global warming.

The ecological and economic effects of major El Ninos are massive. In 1982 and 1983, El Nino caused the collapse of one of the world's most valuable anchovy fisheries off Peru, starving a quarter of the country's seals and leaving fishermen's nets empty. It triggered forest fires in Borneo that covered an area the size of Belgium; typhoons were diverted onto new tracks, crashing into Hawaii and Tahiti; Australia had its worst drought for a century and experienced massive wildfires; Galapagos had more rain in two weeks than the previous six years; California and the southern US faced record storms and floods. Overall, the loss to the world economy from this one weather phenomenon was put at more than $13 billion.




The drying of the tropics has extended deep into Europe. According to John Thornes, a geographer at Kings College, London, the Mediterranean region has seen "a turning point towards progressively lower rainfall since about 1963." The 1990s in particular have seen exceptional droughts. Rainfall is 20 percent less than at the start of the century. Spain had five years of continuous drought beginning in 1991. In 1995, the southeast of the country saw just 5 centimetres of rain, a quarter of normal. The empty reservoirs, dried up rivers and wetlands, forest fires and eroding soils seen from Spain to Greece in the 1990s signal a permanent shift to climatic conditions more like the Sahara than Europe, says Thornes, who is coordinator of Medalus, the EU-funded Mediterranean Desertification and Land Use program. In 1989, the Greek government estimated the average flow of its longest river, the Acheloos, which feeds the Messolonghi wetland, at 5 cubic kilometres a year. Four years later the figure was recalculated at less than 3 cubic kilometres.

Britain has shared in the "desertification" of Europe. The country has been breaking climatic records consistently in the past 25 years. Since 1976, there have also been three droughts of an intensity expected, on past evidence, only once in 200 years. Several water-supply companies, recognizing a permanent shift in climate, reassessed their "reliable" water supplies at 10 percent below previous estimates. And that was before the start of 1997, which yielded the driest January for 200 years and a March that brought southeast England only 20 percent of normal rainfall.

But further north, Europe has become wetter and stormier. North of 50 degrees latitude, across the continent, in a band that takes in cities including Dublin, Stockholm, Berlin, Warsaw and Moscow, the 1980s were both the warmest and wettest on record. Some scientists believe the massive floods that hit Poland and Germany in the summer of 1997 were yet one more example of this trend toward wilder, wetter weather.


Coastal zones and small islands are among the most densely populated places on the planet. They are also the most immediately threatened by rising sea levels caused by the expansion of water as it warms, and the melting of the world's polar ice caps and glaciers. Sea levels are between 10 and 25 centimetres higher than a century ago. Some 80 percent of the world's beaches are eroding away, often at the rate of many metres a year. The height of waves in the North Atlantic has increased 50 percent over the last 30 years.

Rising tides threaten the survival of many low-lying coral island nations, including Anguilla, the Marshall Islands, Tokelau, Tarawa, Tuvalu and the Maldives. Marshall Island's foreign minister Tom Kijiner told a 1994 UN conference of small island states that rising sea levels "could annihilate our islands as effectively as an atomic bomb." Sea-level rise also threatens major cities, including Alexandria, Venice, Tokyo and Miami.


The evidence of human health effects from global warming is growing. In both Europe and North America, doctors estimate that several thousand people died of heart attacks and respiratory diseases as a result of the heat waves of 1995, the world's warmest year so far. Heat deaths are expected to kill at least 600 more people every summer in Japan. Many of the deaths in heat waves are people over age 65. "These effects of global warming are hitting the weakest people," says researcher Hideo Harasawa of the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Japan.

The 1990s have also seen plagues of mosquitoes carrying malaria, dengue and yellow fever to new places in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Malaria is reaching further up hillsides in central Africa and as far north as Ishigaki Island and Miyako Island in Okinawa, Japan; yellow fever has struck Ethiopia, and dengue fever is penetrating for the first time north to Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico and Houston, Texas.

Malaria, which kills 2 million people in Africa alone, kills most not where it is endemic (because people in these areas build up some immunity) but in fringe areas where it appears for only part of the year. David Warhurst of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says that when seasonal malaria spread to a new region in Madagascar in 1988, there were 100,000 cases, 20 percent of them fatal. This tragedy is "a model for what could happen as a result of global warming."

According to research done in the southern area of China, where malaria is a problem, tropical malaria has been shown capable of maintaining its presence in areas previously too cool to host the disease. At current rates of global warming, there is a possibility malaria will spread to northern China, Korea and parts of western Japan.

In addition, climate change will affect growing seasons, crop yields and food supplies. In Kyushu, Japan, corn and wheat harvests are expected to decline. Winter wheat production is predicted to decrease by 55 percent in India and 15 percent in China by the year 2010 if the present rate of global warming is not slowed.


1997 is the pivotal year for slowing climate change. Urgent political and private sector action is needed now if the world is to avoid major disruption as global warming takes hold. But contrary to much popular thought, meeting rigorous goals for the reduction of CO2 may be economically very attractive indeed. Energy efficiency in particular can save economies billions of dollars annually.


Time is short for meeting the commitments made when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed at the Earth Summit in Rio five years ago. Industrialized nations agreed to stabilize their emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases at 1990 levels by the year 2000. But outside the former Soviet block, only two nations, the UK and Germany, currently seem likely to meet the commitment. And in fact, between 1990 and 1996, emissions from the OECD nations have risen by 7.8 percent. This is faster than the global increase of 6.4 percent. In 1996, the OECD nations, with just 14 percent of the world's population, accounted for over half of all emissions.

The first full meeting of UNFCCC signatories, at Berlin in 1995, agreed on the need for real cuts in emissions from industrialized nations after 2000. The European Union (EU) has proposed initial targets of 7.5 percent reductions by 2005 and 15 percent by 2010. A study undertaken for WWF by the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands concluded that using tried and true policies and technologies, the EU could achieve at least a 14 percent reduction in emissions by the year 2005, whilst still growing the economy at 2 percent annually.

The conclusion of the UNFCCC negotiations in Kyoto in December 1997 could be the world's last chance to head off a catastrophic century of warming. Hope is that the 167 nations attending agree on the need for a long-term ceiling for CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. But neither the US nor Japan, two of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases, have signaled that they are willing to propel current negotiations toward an agreement for significant reductions of greenhouse gases by 2005.

The world has much work to do. But, with political will and private sector cooperation and commitment, these targets are achievable without disruption to world economic systems or the development of poorer nations.


There is only one way the nations of the world can achieve their targets for carbon dioxide emissions--and that's with the support, initiative and commitment of industry, government and individuals. With government and industry working in tandem, and with a sense of urgency, emissions can be reduced.

Existing technologies can deliver major savings in energy use, which could lead to large-scale cuts in emissions of CO2 by early next century. Numerous studies show that there is immediate potential for energy efficiency improvements in industrialized countries that could reduce emissions by a quarter in industry and a third in transport--without any decline in service or performance. Amory Lovins, of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, says "saving energy is cheaper than buying it."

Many businesses are already seeing the wisdom of these words. IBM, for example, has significantly cut CO2 emissions and saved itself $525 million through energy efficiency measures in the last decade. Johnson & Johnson has set an ambitious energy reduction goal of 25 percent by the year 2000. Throughout the economy, there are countless such savings to be picked up. The harder you look, the more you find. Replacing inefficient motors, buying advanced electrical transformers, recycling, insulating, designing energy efficient offices and preventing steam leaks are just a few of the myriad strategies that offer high returns on investment and a carbon reduction bounty.

Dutch lighting giant, Philips, has committed to reducing energy used in its production processes by at least a quarter by the year 2000. And working in partnership with WWF, Germany's AEG (a subsidiary of Electrolux) has agreed to make the top selling appliances in its Green Line 25 percent more energy efficient by 1999. Japan Railways East is introducing new rail cars that consume 50 percent less energy than the older models.

All over the world, companies are looking for, and finding, new opportunities to save money and cut carbon emissions, whilst at the same time providing the consumer with superior products and services, many of which will save them money too. The businesses that take the lead in saving energy and adopting or developing new processes and technologies will also take the lead in the marketplace. Renewable energy technologies too are expanding. ENRON, for example, has major new wind and solar energy projects in development in the US, India and China. The Japanese company Kyocera is pioneering the use of solar cells as construction elements in roofs and walls of new commercial buildings.

Automobile manufacturers are now racing to be the first to produce hyper-efficient cars that deliver high levels of comfort and performance with up to 90 percent fuel savings. Daimler-Benz, Ford and Toyota are all planning to offer consumers the first generation of these cars in the very near future. And the consumer is ready. In a national opinion poll carried out for WWF in August 1997, 86 percent of Americans said they wanted to see more fuel efficient, cleaner cars on the market. Some of these cars will be powered by fuel cell technology which converts hydrogen directly to electricity. The same technology has great potential for on-site power production in commercial buildings and large scale power production. Initially, natural gas will be used to provide the hydrogen for these new, cleaner, fuel cell powered plants. Advanced gas turbines also offer a high-tech solution that will help nations to wean themselves from coal and oil-based economies.

As businesses innovate, governments must act to make the financial and market conditions more receptive to change. Many market barriers exist for the rapid introduction of less carbon intensive technologies and products. Consumers often have no idea that high quality, low-cost, energy efficient appliances are available, managers fail to see the opportunities offered by energy efficiency, and architects or property developers have no incentive for greener designs. Business and government can work in tandem to remedy this situation. Increased research and development investments are required from both, and tax credits could help to speed this process or that of capital stock turnover. Major initiatives are also needed for consumer education and market establishment in order to get new energy efficient products off the drawing board and into our shops and homes. More and more consumers are demanding these products.


As this report demonstrates, we are already living with the consequences of global warming. The state of the climate threatens our present and our children's future. The effects of increasing the Earth's temperature will accelerate and intensify unless we act without delay. Clearly, achieving a binding agreement in Kyoto to significantly reduce emissions below 1990 levels by the year 2005 is pivotal to protecting the planet and preventing future climate change. Implementing the targets set in Kyoto will depend on the full commitment of business and governments alike. Given a sense of immediacy and urgency, we can solve the problem of climate change, and we can do it without damaging the economy.