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Latest climate research demands urgent action, say researchers

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Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef, as seen in this satellite image, is under the dual threat of rising temperatures and increasing ocean acidity.

Credit: NASA

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The latest research results on climate change indicate serious risks ahead, and will lend urgency to the world's climate negotiations in Copenhagen later this year, researchers say.

Fresh from a major international scientific congress, the findings were presented last week in The Synthesis Report, co-authored by the Australian National University's Climate Change Institute director, Will Steffen.

The newest evidence indicates that many aspects of the climate are changing near the upper boundary of earlier projections, he reported, with the world facing serious risks if the temperature of the planet rises by only two degrees above the pre-industrial level.

"The two degree Celcius 'guardrail' is an upper limit to the temperature rise that humanity might be able to cope with, and as observed and 'committed' temperature rise together are already about 1.3 degrees, we are running out of time to get emissions tracking downwards," Steffen said.

"The greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are already at a level that is predicted to cause warming of around 2 degrees so major emission cuts should be made immediately to retain climate change. The clock is ticking," added Katherine Richardson, Chair of the writing team.

With warming of around one to two degrees comes the possibility of triggering 'tipping points' that could lead to societal disruption for large numbers of people.

Examples including the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, changes to the Asian Monsoon to a substantially drier state and the loss of water storage capacity in the Himalayan glaciers.

Increasing ocean acidification as the result of dissolving carbon dioxide emissions could also cause catastrophic and irreversible damage to areas such as Australia's Great Barrier Reef, according to the report.

"To recover ecosystems like [this] would likely take hundreds of thousands, if not many millions of years, although true recovery is impossible because extinctions are irreversible," said John Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and report co-author.

And the longer action is delayed, the greater the costs - both environmentally and financially speaking - are likely to be.

"The economic analyses presented at the [meeting] highlighted the escalating costs of any further delays in initiating significant emission reductions - the cost of both dealing with impacts and implementing mitigation actions will rise sharply the longer we wait to act."

ANU economist Frank Jotzo added that the international negotiations toward the UN climate conference in Copenhagen at the end of the year show promise, but could fall short of comprehensive climate protection.

"To achieve ambitious mitigation it is critical that all major countries are involved. Many developing countries are willing to come to the party in some form, but they insist that the developed world take bigger steps sooner, and help finance investments in developing countries."

"Governments need to put a price on carbon, through emissions trading or taxes. It is now up to advanced countries, including Australia and the United States, to show that effective climate policy can go hand in hand with higher living standards."