Since 1980 the international scientific community has worked hard to coordinate research on global environment changes through four global change programmes (Reid et al. 2010). Started in 2009, the International Council for Science (ICSU) led a visioning process for Earth System Research focusing on solutions to environmental problems, leading to the identification of five Grand Challenges for research (Reid et al. 2010). The process inspired the climate researchers under the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) to develop an initiative for future climate research (Shaprio et al. 2010) and seven priority areas called the WCRP Grand Challenges (Beniston 2013). One of these is “Melting Ice and Global Consequences” which focuses on the cryosphere, a defining feature of high maintains and polar regions.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created in 1988 to bridge the gap between the international scientific communities and police bodies consisting of national governments under the United Nations (UN), through its five assessment reports. In 1992, the UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro identified climate change as one of the major environmental challenges facing humankind and the Framework Convention on Climate Change was ratified. Meanwhile, two other major UN conventions, namely the biodiversity and the desertification conventions were also drafted. In 1996 the Kyoto Protocol was established with the aim of reducing anthropogenic carbon emissions.
Recognizing the impact of climate change on humans and ecosystems, world leaders gathered in Paris in 2015 to agree on goals to limit global warming to 2 °C or even 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. Unfortunately, this ambition has been challenged by several political setbacks. In 2019, a UN report (WMO 2020) reveals that the world’s climate warming is accelerating, and countries still aren’t fulfilling commitments they made at the UN Paris climate conference in 2015. If we don’t take a collective and quick action, the world would be on course for a 4–5 °C temperature increase by the end of this century. Human induced climate change has been, and remains to be one of the most critical threats to sensitive ecosystems and human society. At the same time, the need to act has never been so clear and urgent.
Concerning the coral bleaching issue, the UN Environment Programme has been running a Regional Seas Programme since 1974. The overarching goal of most regional seas conventions and action plans is to support contracting parties in the protection, conservation and sustainable development of the marine and coastal environment. These are useful, but not sufficient. In the face of global challenges, a global coordination and cooperation is badly needed.
Due to the critical role of the ocean and the cryosphere for life on Earth, the IPCC published a special report on the ocean and cryosphere in a changing climate (IPCC 2019). This report assessed the most recent knowledge about climate changes and climate-related risks of today and in the future in oceans, high mountain areas and polar regions.
The determination that the world’s mountain regions are particularly vulnerable to the unprecedented speed and magnitude of climate change, promoted scientific research, as well as development and implementation of practical solutions for monitoring and adaptation. The scientific research on the climate and environment in the Alps has a long tradition, providing inspirations for other mountain regions such as the Andes and the so-called Third Pole which is the Tibetan plateaus and its surrounding mountain regions (Yao et al. 2019). International programs such as the Third Pole Environment (TPE) have the potential to support and promote regional cooperation across national boundaries.
The Arctic Council, formally established in 1996, is the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, Arctic indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, including climate change and its impacts. Through its working group and the scientific assessments, the Arctic Council has served as a knowledge broker between scientific community and policy world. One successful example is its Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) in 2004.
Evidence-based policy making is the success factor for improved environmental conditions. This has been demonstrated by the policy response to deal with the ozone hole. The Nobel prize winning discovery of the causes and mechanisms of the stratospheric ozone reduction made a convincing case for the world’s governments to sign the Montreal Protocol. The implementation of the agreement led to a significant reduction of the atmospheric concentrations of these chemicals and the recovery of the ozone layer over the last 20 years. However, due to the long lifetime of these chemicals, we cannot expect a full recovery of the ozone layer until some 30 years later.
In conclusion, we have the scientific understanding and evidence, as well as some policy bodies and instruments to handle the issues discussed. What is badly needed is to take collective and effective actions. We can make a difference with the choice we are making.