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Climate change - transformation of society

Precipitation has increased by 10% to 40% in northern Europe while in the south drought has increased by 20%. The sea level is rising while the ice is thinning and glaciers are retreating. An increase in tidal waves, flooding, storms, landslides and forest fires is foreseeable for the European continent as a whole.

What are the possible consequences of global warming where Europe is concerned? If we refuse to accept them, how can we prevent them and adapt to them? On the basis of an analysis of scenarios and probable socio?economic impacts in the light of the geographical particularities of the main regions of the continent, the experts involved in the Acacia project are confronting policymakers, industry and society in general with realities which can no longer be ignored.

Although they do not have definitive proof, many scientists consider that the Earth is warming up, and that human activities are implicated. What scale is

this likely to reach over the next few years, what will the environmental and socio-economic impact be, and how can society adapt? Forty or so leading European specialists in the fields of climatology, environment and human sciences have attempted to answer these three questions in the context of the Acacia project.

Their first concern was to take stock of the climate. The average temperature of the continent rose by nearly one degree in the course of the 20th century, with a marked increase in the last decade. The number of days of exceptional heat in the south of Italy rose from 52 for the period 1950-1959 to 123 in the decade 1960-1969, reaching 165 (1970-1989) and finally 230 in the years 1990-1999.

The temperature of the surface waters of the seas has risen by several tenths of a degree. Precipitation has increased by 10% to 40% in Northern Europe, while drought has increased by 20% in the south. The scale, speed and geographical distribution of these trends has resulted in the retreat of glaciers, and a constant reduction in the thickness of Arctic ice.

Four scenarios

On the basis of projections made in 1999 by the IPPC(1), the experts worked out four scenarios at European regional level taking into account temperature rises of between 0.1°C and 0.4°C per decade. According to Martin Parry, the coordinator of the Acacia Project, 'Even though these projections contain uncertainties, we have sufficient information to show that with the 0.4°C scenario seasonal climate changes would be particularly significant.'

The phenomenon would extend well beyond Southern Europe, reaching the Alps, the North Sea, Scandinavia and North West Russia. The impact on the water cycle would be an average increase in winter precipitation of up to 4% per decade for the continent as a whole, while there would be worse drought in the summer in the Mediterranean basin and an increase in rainfall (2% per decade) in the North.

While there is no reliable way of extrapolating between global warming and the accumulation of extreme atmospheric events, in all likelihood there will be an increase in the frequency of natural disasters, such as tidal waves, flooding, storms, landslides and forest fires, on the continent as a whole. Depending on the scenario in question, the sea level could increase by 13-68 cm over the next fifty years.

Choosing our future

On the basis of these scenarios, the researchers attempted to evaluate the impacts of ecosystem changes on major sectors such as health, transport, energy, industry, insurance, etc. and the main regions of Europe. They then analysed how European society can formulate realistic and proactive policies to enable it to adapt in preparation for these changes. To establish a framework for analysing the interaction between the socio-political functioning of society and climate change, Acacia selected four types of scenarios that are conceivable for the society of the future: 'world markets', 'provincial enterprise', 'global sustainability' and 'local stewardship'.

The organisation of society, economic growth, the balance between sectors of activities and between regions, the technological dynamic and, last but not least, ecosystem management will be very different in each of the scenarios. The coordinator of the Acacia Project concludes that 'This socio-political vision is very important. It shows that our ability to adapt to environmental constraints depends to a significant extent on our desire to organise ourselves. These scenarios are of course theoretical, but they are necessary in order to launch a debate in which all the stakeholders affected by climate change should envisage their future.'

(1) In its Special Report on Emission Scenarios, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change worked out a series of scenarios based on different trends in global variables (world population, total emissions, atmospheric CO2 concentrations, effect of abatement policies, etc.).

Concerted Action towards a Comprehensive Climate Impacts and Adaptations Assessment for the European Union (ACACIA)

Environment and Climate


Martin Parry

Jackson Environment Institute
Norwich (United Kingdom)
Fax : +49- 1603 593 896
E-mail :

39 partners in 12 countries (United Kingdom, German, Italy, France, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland and Norway).

More clement weather and an increase in the growth period of plants could make it possible to grow certain crops in northern regions than cannot be grown there today