ATTEMPTS to control or curb the emission of greenhouse gases, linked by science to the overall rise in global temperatures, were "probably too late to arrest the inevitable trend of global warming", two scientists, one from South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), said in an opinion piece published in the peer review journal Nature Climate Change on Wednesday.

Governments and institutions, especially in developing countries, should focus on adapting to climate change, instead of simply trying to limit or stop it, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned. The panel is an intergovernmental scientific intergovernmental body, set up in 1988 under the auspices of the United Nations at the request of member governments.

The research was "very, very important", said Prof Mark Swilling, programme co-ordinator of the University of Stellenbosch School of Public Leadership’s Sustainable Development Programme.

Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) chief biodiversity and ecosystems services scientist Belinda Reyers said there was already a body of work that called for a stronger emphasis on adaptation. What was new in this article was the call to look at changes in non-living things such as mountains and glaciers.

In South Africa this was important, for example, because projections were that the country would face longer droughts closing with episodes of more intense rainfall than previously experienced, she said.

"This is very challenging for South Africa because we already have very poor soils. It will exacerbate siltation in dams ... and we should be considering how to manage that because it is very expensive to deal with," she said.

Prof Swilling said the "key take home message" from the piece was that the global community’s failure to take the key decisions to mitigate climate change would cause global warming by more than 2°C and this would cause major changes, especially for the poor.

"So we must now anticipate these changes and prepare. This is what adaptation is. But adaptation done properly is really about social justice, people-centred development and restoration of ecosystem services. We should be doing all this anyway, irrespective of whether it is needed for adaptation or not," he said.

Wits geoscientist Jasper Knight and his co-author Dr Stephan Harrison, quaternary science professor at the UK’s University of Exeter, argued governments’ focus on the limitation of greenhouse gas emissions through carbon cap-and-trade schemes and renewable energy sources instead of on the monitoring, modeling and managing the impacts of climate change on the dynamics of Earth surface systems, such as glaciers, rivers, mountains and coasts was "a critical omission".

"This is a critical omission, as Earth surface systems provide water and soil resources, sustain ecosystem services and strongly influence biogeochemical climate feedbacks in ways that are as yet uncertain," they wrote in the article, titled "The Impacts of climate change on terrestrial Earth surface systems".

Dr Knight said mitigation strategies, such as building flood defences, were "seen as a more immediate quick fix solution" to issues of increased flood hazard than to come up with adaptation strategies, such as improved building codes or planning regulations, which were often seen as "longer-term solutions" that had less direct relevance.

"In the short term mitigation is fine, but it doesn’t address long-term root causes," he said.

Dr Reyers’ colleague, Bob Scholes, leader of the CSIR’s Natural Resources and the Environment Research Group, said until recently, adaptation was thought of as a "developing world issue", while mitigation was a "developed world issue".

"It is now clear that both of those statements is untrue: both will need to mitigate, and both adapt," he said.

Scientists in many fields were still unclear about what should be done with increased adaptation funding, given the uncertainties about the future. South Africa had just qualified to access up to $10m for this purpose over the next three years, he said.

"I suppose that is the main point of this paper — we could reduce at least some of those uncertainties with more impacts research... Note that this is a letter in the ‘Perspectives’ section (more-or-less an opinion piece, rather than a research finding). The cynical take is that this is two scientists arguing for more funding to their area of research," Dr Scholes said.

Dr Knight said the careful thought about how a changing climate would impact on land surfaces was important "because that’s where we get our water, our food".

Climate modelling projected that South Africa would become wetter in the East and drier in the West, but did not provide answers to what would happen next, such as how the landscape would channel extra rainfall. Answers to this could be drawn from past periods of rapid climate change, such as the last Ice Age, about 15,000 years ago and the so-called Little Ice Age about 300 years ago.

Dr Knight said the published research provided a global baseline from which further work could be done at a regional level, and he hoped to present some of his thoughts on what could happen in South Africa at a National Research Foundation conference this year.