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First World Conference on Climate Impacts: Painting the Big Picture

Droughts, floods, crop failures, invading species and diseases – climate change impacts of today and tomorrow come with a raft of buzz words. But the science behind our understanding of the potential consequences of global warming is both much broader and much more fragmented.

For the first time ever, scientists and stakeholders from all over the world come together this week to have a look at the big impacts picture. They assemble at the “Impacts World 2013” conference in Potsdam, Germany, aiming at developing a new scientific agenda to systematically address knowledge gaps and to start bridging them.

Participants include top decision-makers like EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard and Rachel Kyte of the World Bank, as well as eminent scientists like Cynthia Rosenzweig of the US NASA Climate Research Unit and Joseph Alcamo of the UN Environment Program.

“For the sake of evidence-based decision-making in this world confronted with unprecedented climate change, the moment has come for impacts research to enter a new era – and we’re very proud to host the event that marks this important step forward,” says Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), which helped organizing this community-driven effort together with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA).

Starting the painstaking integration

“However, this also means to go where it hurts,” Schellnhuber emphasizes. “Poignant case studies and pioneering computer simulations of single sectors, like agriculture or water management, laid the foundation for starting the painstaking integration of results, across sectors and scales. So this is about connecting the dots – and about leaving terra incognita for good.”

Climate impacts research is a rather young branch of global-change science. It is now virtually certain, from fundamental physics, careful observations, and advanced simulation modeling, that the emissions of greenhouse gases lead to climate change. But while it is also clear that under significant global warming negative effects like decreased rainfall in already arid regions outweigh positive ones like the CO2-fertilization of plants in the long run, modeling of climate impacts has to deal with vast complexities, heterogeneities, and thus uncertainties. Analyzing the effects of climate change for societies is especially complicated by sectoral interactions such as the impacts of ecosystems change on malaria distribution or the consequences of ocean acidification and coastal erosion for global food supply.

Preparing stakeholders for tough choices

“Decision-makers are confronted with significant uncertainties when it comes to assess the seriousness of climate-change impacts and their exact distribution in space and time,” says Schellnhuber. “Science can support them in taking a risk-management perspective – some impacts might have a low probability of occurring, yet would result in inacceptable damages, so from a precautionary perspective they should rather be avoided.” For those effects might profoundly hurt the livelihoods of many million people. “We cannot predict the future,” Schellnhuber says. “Yet we shape it, every single day.”

How can we assess knock-on effects of impacts triggered by future extreme events? How can we improve our observational archives, and deal with incomplete data sets? How can we enhance the robustness of projections? How can we rigorously validate impact models? For the benefit of adaptation strategies, are we able to project the timing of impacts? These are just a few of the questions to be addressed by the scientists. The discussions will help to advance the agenda in one of the world’s most crucial fields of science.

The findings to be discussed at Impacts World 2013 will be part of the bulk of science which feeds into the upcoming Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). A special side event will be dedicated to the Intersectoral Impacts Model Intercomparison Project (ISI-MIP) which, for the first time, has achieved a comprehensive model-based analysis of global impacts across different sectors.

Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner for Climate Action:
"Cutting the world's greenhouse-gas emissions must remain our top priority in order to keep global warming below 2°C and avert dangerous climate change. But the adverse impacts of the changing climate are increasingly evident today in Europe. Adapting to these changes is one of the most fundamental challenges for territorial development in Europe. This is why the European Commission prepared a strategy that will help decision-makers in Europe to choose the best solutions to the benefit of their citizens. This will stimulate growth and jobs and prevent potentially high human, economic and environmental costs later on. For evidence-based strategies and from a risk management perspective, policy-makers like us need sound information on potential climate impacts, and no one but science can deliver that. I very much welcome the great effort the scientific community is taking to support us with this conference.”

Rachel Kyte, Vice President of Sustainable Development at the World Bank:
"Climate change risks grinding millions of people back into poverty. The scientists gathered at this conference can help us understand the effects and communicate them effectively. Reducing climate risks to the world's poorest people is an economic, social and moral imperative for those working in development, in fact for all of us."

Pavel Kabat, Director of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA):
“It is crucial to understand how climate change will impact our economies and societies, and this conference does just that, bringing together international and interdisciplinary researchers who are working from a systems perspective towards understanding climate impacts. Only through such an integrated approach can we produce useful information to guide policymakers in crafting effective solutions.”

Chris Field, Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford and co-chair of IPCC Working Group II:
"The work being discussed at the conference is important for the IPCC, the scientific community, and the world. Designing effective research on climate change impacts is one of the great scientific challenges of our era. The research is absolutely necessary as support for smart, informed decisions about dealing with climate change. But deeply useful research has been difficult to design, conduct, and evaluate. Some of the issues are conceptual. There are countless options for possible future worlds, and each has different implications for the consequences of climate change. Others are practical. Traditional impact studies are difficult to intercompare as a result of differences in scenario, climate model, averaging period, and a host of other issues. Still others are statistical. Few impact studies translate smoothly to risk, because the full range of possible outcomes is rarely explored. It is wonderful to see that these challenges have been directly tackled in the work to be discussed at Impacts World 2013 and especially in the ISI-MIP project. I look forward to seeing the results of the research and to thinking, along with all of you, about ways to build on it."

Cynthia Rosenzweig, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS):
"The worldwide agricultural sector faces the significant challenge of increasing production to provide food security for a population projected to rise to 9 billion by mid-century while protecting the environment and the functioning of ecosystems. This challenge is compounded by the need to adapt to climate change by taking advantage of potential benefits and by minimizing the potentially negative impacts to agricultural production. The Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project (AgMIP) is a major international effort linking the climate, crop, and economic modeling communities with cutting-edge information technology to produce improved crop and economic models and the next generation of climate impact projections for the agricultural sector. I know that other sectors, and the scientists that investigate them, are confronted with similar issues. I welcome the opportunity of the Impacts World Conference to discuss these challenges, impart some lessons from AgMIP, and build collaborations."

Nigel Arnell, University of Reading:
“Some degree of climate change is now inevitable, and we need to adapt to changing weather regimes. In order to do this we need to know what the consequences and impacts of a changing climate may be – we need to know what impacts are likely, which are plausible, and which are not. We therefore need to be able to model the potential impacts of climate change, not only at the local scale, but also at the regional and global scales because many of our activities are internationalised: think of global supply chains. The Impacts World Conference provides an excellent opportunity for the impacts research community to get together to exchange information and ideas. I am particularly keen on seeing new developments in impact modeling, and in particular discussing how we can factor the uncertainty in impacts models into our assessments and adaptation decisions.”

Twitter hashtag: #CIW13
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For further information please contact:
PIK press office
Phone: +49 331 288 25 07

Mareike Schodder | PIK Potsdam
Further information:

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