Quirin Schiermeier in Nature:
When pondering the best way to study the impact of climate change, researcher Hans Joachim Schellnhuber liked to recall an old Hindu fable. Six men, all blind but thirsty for knowledge, examine an elephant. One fumbles the pachyderm’s sturdy side, while others grasp at its tusk, trunk, knee, ear or tail. In the end, all are completely misled as to the nature of the beast.
The analogy worked. Although many researchers had modelled various aspects of the global-warming elephant, there had been no comprehensive assessment of what warming will really mean for human societies and vital natural resources. But that changed last year when Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, and other leading climate-impact researchers launched the Inter-Sectoral Impact Model Intercomparison Project. This aims to produce a set of harmonized global-impact reports based on the same set of climate data, which will for the first time allow models to be directly compared. Last month it published its initial results in four reports in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1–4. These suggest that even modest climate change might drastically affect the living conditions of billions of people, whether through water scarcity, crop shortages or extremes of weather. The group warns that water is the biggest worry. If the world warms by just 2 °C above the present level, which now seems all but unavoidable by 2100, up to one-fifth of the global population could suffer severe shortages.