Dita Alangkara, File, Associated Press
If you think of climate change as a hazard for some far-off polar bears years from now, you're mistaken. That's the message from top climate scientists gathering in Japan this week to assess the impact of global warming.
In fact, they will say, the dangers of a warming Earth are immediate and very human.
"The polar bear is us," says Patricia Romero Lankao of the federally financed National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., referring to the first species to be listed as threatened by global warming due to melting sea ice.
She will be among the more than 60 scientists in Japan to finish writing a massive and authoritative report on the impacts of global warming. With representatives from about 100 governments at this week's meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, they'll wrap up a summary that tells world leaders how bad the problem is.
The key message from leaked drafts and interviews with the authors and other scientists: The big risks and overall effects of global warming are far more immediate and local than scientists once thought. It's not just about melting ice, threatened animals and plants. It's about the human problems of hunger, disease, drought, flooding, refugees and war, becoming worse.
The report says scientists have already observed many changes from warming, such as an increase in heat waves in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Severe floods, such as the one that displaced 90,000 people in Mozambique in 2008, are now more common in Africa and Australia. Europe and North America are getting more intense downpours that can be damaging. Melting ice in the Arctic is not only affecting the polar bear, but already changing the culture and livelihoods of indigenous people in northern Canada.
Past panel reports have been ignored because global warming's effects seemed too distant in time and location, says Pennsylvania State University scientist Michael Mann.
This report finds "It's not far-off in the future and it's not exotic creatures — it's us and now," says Mann, who didn't work on this latest report.
The United Nations established the climate change panel in 1988 and its work is done by three groups. One looks at the science behind global warming. The group meeting in Japan beginning Tuesday studies its impacts. And a third looks at ways to slow warming.
Its reports have reiterated what nearly every major scientific organization has said: The burning of coal, oil and gas is producing an increasing amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. Those gases change Earth's climate, bringing warmer temperatures and more extreme weather, and the problem is worsening.
The panel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, months after it issued its last report.
Since then, the impact group has been reviewing the latest research and writing 30 chapters on warming's effects and regional impacts. Those chapters haven't been officially released but were posted on a skeptical website.
The key message can be summed up in one word that the overall report uses more than 5,000 times: risk.
"Climate change really is a challenge in managing risks," says the report's chief author, Chris Field of the Carnegie Institution of Science in California. "It's very clear that we are not prepared for the kind of events we're seeing."
Already the effects of global warming are "widespread and consequential," says one part of the larger report, noting that science has compiled more evidence and done much more research since the last report in 2007.
If climate change continues, the panel's larger report predicts these harms:
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