In March 1998, the conclusion of the most extensive Swiss National Research Programme to date, 'Climate Change and Natural Hazards' (NRP 31), was celebrated in a final event. OcCC, the Advisory Body on Climate Change Research and Policy to the FDHA and DETEC, would like to take this opportunity to assess the situation of climate change research in Switzerland.
Research has shown that the climate change to be expected for Switzerland will have discernible impacts on the economy, increase the risk of natural disasters and lead to changes in Alpine ecosystems. We may also be adversely affected by changes in other regions of the planet.
Owing to the inertia of the climate system and the complexity of processes involved, further research efforts are required to obtain enhanced forecasts on the quality and extent of possible impacts. Human influence on global climate, however, now being virtually undisputed, there is sufficient scientific legitimation for political implementation.
It is an undisputed fact that human activities have been causing increases in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases over the past 100 years. Over the same period, global temperature has increased by 0.3 to 0.6°C - in Switzerland by a little over 1°C. Although these fluctuations are, in part, due to natural causes, leading scientists in Switzerland agree with the statement issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1996, according to which "the balance of evidence ... suggests a discernible human influence on global climate" .
The risks of global climate change consist in sea level-rise, shifting climate zones and ocean currents, degradation of significant ecosystems, increasing periods of drought and flood, as well as greater scarcity of water resources. Such changes may both directly and indirectly affect the economy, social structures, human health as well as food reserves.
For Switzerland, the outcome of NRP31 indicates that there is no significant increase in weather-related natural hazards over the past years. However, danger zones are clearly being used to a greater extent, which may result in more damage wrought by natural disasters. Noticeable changes are to be expected in the following areas if temperatures continue to increase :
Apart from winter tourism, adverse effects are also expected on agriculture, energy supply as well as infrastructure hit by natural hazards. The Assessment Report on the Impacts of Extreme Precipitation Events commissioned by OcCC also indicates that future flood-related damage is likely to increase. Overall, however, the direct short-term impact of expected climage change on the Swiss economy is not expected to be critical.
The direct impact of climate change on the health of the Swiss population has not yet been studied. Emissions of combustion-related greenhouse gases, however, correlate with those of other air pollutants. Indeed, NRP26 has confirmed the relevance to public health in Switzerland of this type of air pollution.
Owing to the increasing mobility of both people and capital, and the globalisation of the economy, Switzerland should also expect indirect impacts of climate change, e.g., increased migratory pressure due to deteriorating conditions elsewhere, or adverse effects of large-scale droughts or floods on the economy and public health.
As a highly developed country, per-capita contribution in Switzerland to greenhouse gas emissions is above average. International solidarity and our awareness of the global implications of climate change, however, oblige us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Signing the Kyoto Protocol was a first step in this direction.
Even though the direct impact of climate change on the Swiss economy is not considered to be dramatic at this point, the uncertainty regarding future consequences is such that a strategy of wait-and-see is likely to tax the economy much more than a strategy of cautious action.
OcCC therefore continues to perceive the necessity of urgent action at various levels in order to minimize future negative impacts of climate change.
Despite the great complexity of the subject of climate and global environmental change, substantial progress to understand the processes involved has been made - with key contributions in Switzerland from PPE and NRP31. Gaps in the knowledge remain, however, both as regards fundamental questions, such as the role of greenhouse gas sinks or processes in clouds, and the temporal and spatial dimension of impacts of climate change.
Owing to the inertia of the climate system and the wide range of natural variation, human interference only makes itself felt very slowly. What is therefore essential is greater in-depth understanding of the processes involved in order to make reliable forecasts and to assess the range of actions that need to be taken. To enhance our knowledge, continued susbstantial support of research on this subject is required. In a Position Paper, OcCC has presented possible Perspectives of Climate Research in Switzerland.
Fundamental Research: Our knowledge of various elementary relationships and processes within the atmospheric system and the biosphere as well as their contribution to natural hazards is still inadequate; our understanding of processes needs to be enhanced by means of international cooperation.
Monitoring: Maintenance, intensification and standardization of the monitoring network for early identification of natural hazards, and for identification of socio-economic, environment-related hygienic and health factors associated with climate change are required.
Problem-oriented research on focused, cross-cutting issues with the aim of making optimum use of insights from various disciplines and of conducting in-depth, transdisciplinary research into how these issues correlate and what relevance they have to society as a whole, with an emphasis on issues of risk identification, assessment and mitigation.
To prepare for expected global environmental change both at a national and an international level, the following aspects need to be given priority:
OcCC has set itself the task to become more specific on some of these issues. It will be very happy to support the institutions concerned in planning the required actions.