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Sandy spotlights climate change

BY PETRE WILLIAMS-RAYNOR Environment editor williamsp@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, November 11, 2012    

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THE late-season formation of Hurricane Sandy, which brought destruction wherever it made landfall, has put into sharp focus the need for urgency in reaching international consensus on dealing with climate change.

This is the argument of Clifford Mahlung, one of Jamaica's senior climate negotiators and head of the Climate Branch at the Meteorological Service.

While not crediting climate change for Sandy's formation and subsequent ferocity, he said the implications of the hurricane — which made landfall in Jamaica as a category one system on October 24 before going on to wreak havoc on Haiti and later the United States — cannot be ignored.

"One swallow does not a summer make, so it is too early to attribute what we have seen from Sandy directly to climate change. But what we do know is that the sea surface temperatures are much higher because of global warming and because of that, it has the ability to support systems like Sandy this late in the season and that far north," Mahlung told the Jamaica Observer.

"Under normal conditions, the sea surface would have become too cool to sustain a hurricane reaching that far north. We have them [hurricanes] in the tropics up to November, but to have a system reaching category two strength and with such high latitude, it might be little different," he added.

In addition to rising sea surface temperatures, climate change, according to scientific data, the likes of which has been produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, rising sea levels, warmer global temperatures and frequent and/or more extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and droughts, are indicators of a changing climate.

Packing wind gusts of up to 130 kilometres per hour, Sandy more than two weeks ago left one man dead, hundreds of others in shelters and about five billion dollars in damage in Jamaica. It subsequently hit Haiti, where 51 people were killed before travelling to the United States where it pummelled New Jersey and New York. This, while leaving in its wake some 33 people dead and millions in damage there as well.

"It is a wake-up call to everybody, to us here in Jamaica that we can now look forward to more systems coming from the south that can reach hurricane strength before they impact on the south coast," Mahlung said. "So while we are used to the systems coming from the east, these systems that originate south of us can move north across our area. It is something that we must now be aware of."

Following the passage of Hurricane Sandy, Mahlung said the hope is that some tough decisions will be made at the upcoming international climate talks in Doha. For one thing, he said he is hopeful for a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, which prescribes greenhouse gas (GHG) emission targets for the world's largest polluters.

Fuelling climate change is human consumption of fossil fuels, including coal and oil, which increase the concentration of GHGs, such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, in the atmosphere. They, in turn, increase global temperatures.

"As we prepare for Doha [later this month and in] December, the mitigation ambitions that have been pledged by the developed countries are still woefully inadequate. So when we have large countries like the US now being impacted [by hurricanes], they will understand even better what the vulnerable countries have been experiencing over the years," he said.

"They are coming out of one of the worse droughts they have had in history and now that the north-east coast [has been] faced with a storm, these [things] should be a wake-up call for the major emitters to realise the reason behind the urgency [with which] we have been pressing for action," he said.

Mahlung is also optimistic for continued progress on technology transfer, which that could help developing countries vulnerable to climate change to respond effectively. He is, too, hoping that there can be some movement on the funds for the Green Climate Fund, for which a $100 billion a year has been pledged by developed countries.

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