A focus on CO2 and the successful negotiation of an effective global climate agreement will remain basic to the long-term preservation of as much of the cryosphere as possible, and ICCI serves as a strong advocate by highlighting the implications of long-lived greenhouse gases-driven cryosphere climate change for the globe. The IPCC’s AR5 for example makes it clear that deep cuts in CO2 could constrain sea level rise by the end of this century to much lower ranges, and other changes might be slowed as well.
At the same time, the rate of changes occurring in cryosphere regions is much faster and earlier than that of the globe as a whole. Although climate scientists have begun to focus on earlier and earlier dates for a peak in CO2 to avoid non-reversible changes, such as the 2 degree or even 1.5 degree goals for temperature rise, in the cryosphere this timeline accelerates further still. Facing a loss of summer sea ice well before 2050, and disappearance of many land glaciers even earlier, climate policies aimed at the end of this century simply cannot occur quickly enough. More so than the rest of the globe, the cryosphere is on a near-term timeline of at most decades, rather than centuries. So in addition to ambitious cuts in CO2, the cryosphere requires measures that will act far more rapidly.
The cryosphere is therefore different, requiring different yet complementary climate solutions to those of the globe as a whole. Because the cryosphere requires more near-term solutions, ICCI also works towards reductions in the short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) black carbon and tropospheric ozone (neither encompassed by Kyoto) and methane (a Kyoto gas with far greater potential than that yet realized) in addition to working within the UNFCCC framework.
Recent research, summarized by among others the Arctic Council and UNEP (see Links) increasingly shows that the forces driving warming in the cryosphere are different, and sometimes directly opposite in action, to those drivers in less reflective areas of the globe. Black carbon in the atmosphere for example may actually prove cooling under certain conditions because it gathers water molecules that as clouds reflect heat away from earth – but not over white surfaces where the clouds appear dark; and definitely not once that same dark BC deposits out onto ice and snow. Other short-lived pollutants, especially ozone and methane, appear to have a magnified impact in the Arctic springtime melt season. Studies of the impact of these pollutants have barely begun in other cryosphere regions, and the need is urgent for accelerated research and exchanges with Arctic scientists already researching these impacts.
What happens in the cryosphere actually has greatest human and environmental impact well outside these regions, yet that connection is not always drawn, making it a challenge for international policymakers to address with sufficient urgency. Although only 4 million people live in the Arctic region, 40 million in the Himalayas, and none (permanently) on Antarctica, the changes there will affect hundreds of millions across the globe, among them some of the worlds’ poorest populations. The minimum sea level rise of 1 meter now forecast from cryosphere melt through 2100 will impact nearly 150 million people today living in coastal areas, over 100 million of these in Asia. Perhaps of greatest significance, as permafrost and seabed thaw, they have the potential to release carbon (as both methane and CO2) equal to the same amount currently in the atmosphere today. As a greenhouse gas twenty times more powerful than CO2, such a methane release over a relatively short time period could rapidly accelerate overall warming, as will loss of reflectivity from decreasing sea ice especially.
ICCI therefore seeks to:
- highlight the plight of the cryosphere, the rapid changes taking place there and their regional and global consequences;
- inform climate negotiators and the global community of the important differences in the climate dynamics driving cryosphere climate change;
- bring together networks of NGOs, scientists and policymakers to develop policy solutions based specifically on cryosphere climate needs; and
- highlight integrated projects across regions and disciplines, bringing together a range of organizations and individuals (for example Arctic, Himalayan and Antarctic black carbon experts) not normally in contact.