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How the IPCC quieted climate sceptics with its new report

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The lights have gone down on the stage of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) – currently the latest and most comprehensive climate science report – but the impact of its findings will be felt for years to come.

Holding the most ambitious target of any OECD country (moving to 100% renewables by mid-century), there is no more appropriate country to host the last meeting of the IPCC’s AR5 than Denmark, which has set an ambitious target of 50% wind power in the electricity system by 2020.

The job for the 195 member-governments of the IPCC was to condense an exciting, authoritative, alarming and science-based report towards a punchy narrative. This is intended to assist the world to prepare ambitious targets to cut global man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions which have reached the highest level in Earth’s history. These targets need to be agreed in Paris at the UN climate conference in December 2015 as part of a new global climate deal.

The IPCC has done its job well. Their report runs to about 5000 pages, was intensively peer-reviewed and its conclusions already agreed upon during the past 12 months by more than 2000 scientists. It is captured in three large volumes (climate science, climate impacts and adaptation, and climate mitigation) and tells the undeniable truth on the state of climate on this planet – and how urgently action by all governments is needed to avoid planetary disaster.

Behind the report

The IPCC is the single largest scientific body on any burning issue of global concern to the world.

Founded jointly by UNEP and WMO in 1988, it released its first report in 1990. But it was not until 1996 that there was agreement in its 2nd Assessment Report that the climate system shows “evidence” of being negatively impacted by human-caused GHG emissions.

One needs to keep in mind that the IPCC is an ‘intergovernmental’ organisation, not an NGO, not a research body, nor a government. Its rules mandate that all text, including the huge underlying reports and the Summary For Policymakers (SPM) are written by the elite of global scientists, working for free for the IPCC – scientists which are all proposed and accepted by all governments.

Texts are then peer-reviewed by a large array of additional experts and scientists, including those working in business and NGO and elsewhere. Reviewers have to be accepted by the IPCC secretariat based on knowledge of and education on the issue. The SPM is then agreed on by all governments – including those who are usually not the most vocal friends of climate policy or have direct interests in maintaining society’s fossil fuel addiction. So, it is evident that the IPCC SPM as well as the underlying chapters are usually carefully balanced science summary pieces.

They do not represent all of what we as WWF want or promote. For instance, being fully ‘technology-neutral’, the IPCC will never promote 100% renewables by 2050.  Still, even with this caveat, its overall scientific rigour and vigour is leading the world community to do what it ought to do.

The IPCC’s outstanding work was acknowledged when it received the Peace Nobel Prize in 2008.

Debunking “global cooling”

Just a year ago, international newspapers in all continents were full of climate-sceptic articles “showing” that since 1998, the world has hardly warmed (despite record carbon pollution) and because of that, governments should relax climate targets. These numerous attacks fell flat and were off the media agenda by the time the AR5 report was completed.

The IPCC’s Working Group 1 (The Physical Science) report showed clearly that one cannot use just one exceptionally warm base year (1998) after which there was several slightly cooler years to announce “global cooling”. Rather, to explain an atmospheric trend of more than 100 years, one needs to look at decadal trends.

Our last decade was still the warmest on average since mankind recorded temperatures. Short-term natural phenomena such as ocean upwelling might explain this observed temperature “hiatus”, but they do not do away with an increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, since CO2 might stay in the atmosphere longer than 1 000 years. By then, the comparably short-lived natural phenomena will have all have ceased to exist.

The full impact of global warming from CO2 might be felt once this ‘masking’ is over. The report also showed that sea level rise, Arctic melting and ocean acidification were the strongest in the last years and unfortunately larger than projected in its 4th Assessment Report in 2007. That might not only have quieted the sceptics somewhat, but at least stopped the avalanche of sceptic-informed media reports.

But six months later, the sceptics were back at it, this time focusing on the economics of combating climate change.

Inaction will cost more than change

In early 2014, just as the IPCC met to agree on its report on climate mitigation, climate-sceptical media were again chasing the story of climate economics. Their argument?  “Although it is probably necessary, it will cost a fortune. Fossil fuel use will remain cheaper. Let’s focus more on adaptation’.

But the IPCC Working Group 3 report debunked this myth. It showed that, generally, a below-2-degree pathway – including many investments into clean technologies such as renewables and energy efficiency – is about as “expensive” as a high-carbon scenario from a limited economic cost accounting view.

But a low-carbon development is actually much cheaper since the calculated economic costs do not include the multiple economic and other social and developmental benefits from avoided climate impacts, as well as reduced air and other pollution from fossil fuels, reduced freshwater consumption and more jobs.  As a result, media generally stopped reporting about the ‘giant costs’ of decarbonisation.

So, these are a few recent examples where the IPCC has done its job very well.

Now it is up to governments to take the IPCC findings and agreements in the SPM into the much bigger fight and translate it all into strong GHG reduction targets in Paris, where a new global deal is expected to be inked in December 2015. Then governments would destroy the deadly triangle of junk politics, junk science and junk economics – the IPCC has already erased the latter two.

Dr Stephan Singer is the director for Global Energy Policy for WWF International. He is based in Brussels, Belgium.  

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  • realheadline

    Not only dishonest but delusional. Your strange Earth-Worship religion has become tiresome. Get over it.

    • Laniakea Official

      Don’t you worship oil? I mean tards like you act like there can be no progression beyond oil. I mean you won’t even concede any existence of exponential growth factors in technology that support electric and solar as even future options. Well the future potential and possibilities can be here by mid century (What the OPEC emperorturd is claiming will still be a high decade of demand for oil). Solar panel hit 44.7% efficiency [ Just back in 2009 it was considered a record to have 35% What do you think is going to happen when metamaterials and nanotechnology mature enough to be applied to the electric and solar scene? You heard of Graphene potentials for example?

      People like you are going to cause us to have a huge uncleanable mess. Once we actually do change our ways, the planet will certainly been changed. People like you worshiping that OPEC khunt who claims demand of oil will be increasing and provided even into the 2040s-2050s.

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    • Mike Buchanan

      mike Buchanan.

      “Earth Worship” which planet are you planning to move to when this one ceases to exist, perhaps you should get over your denialist religion.

    • JJoMax

      Your optimistic mood is unbearable. The IPCC can make all the science that can, but the religion of the skeptics is that, religion, and they will never be convinced. And the governments make their decisions on the behalf of the tycoons of the energy, automotive and financial interests. China, the new power, will be the number one consumer of coil all this century because they can make it. Ergo, we are going to the hell of a molted planet with or within the IPCC.

  • G

    I fail to understand why people, even ordinary people as well as scientists can’t see where the glaciers in the world have gone. Over 90% of them have disappeared because they have melted, that’s right, melted, because the sea and atmosphere is warmer and the climate is changing. Glaciers in the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, the Andes, the Rockies and the New Zealand Mountains on South Island, all gone. Tell me there is no global warming or climate change and I will show you a deeply mistaken person.
    Respectfully, Gareth J. Davies

  • Slioch

    “the sceptics were back at it” etc.

    Please do not legitimise those who deny anthropogenic global warming by referring to them as “sceptics”. They are not sceptics, they are delusional or mendacious and should be referred to as such. Call a spade a spade.

  • Richard Muriuki Githinji

    This clear warning is very much like the biblical Noahs flood which was ignored but it finally came. The problem is will the world stand up to build the ark. The campaign should now be focused on individual citizens who will in turn put pressure on governments. You will agree that most world leaders are more concerned with power and the money it pulls along than anything else. Climate change is an abstract idea to many of them and they hardly listen to the experts.

    Richard Githinji.

  • dandan.boshoff

    We can only hope that China and United States can get over their stubbornness and sign on to the Kyoto Protocol. Even though its expiry needs to get it replaced with another follow up protocol it will be a great statement and getting them to agree to those goals will be a huge push to address global climate change issues.

    WWF, I agree, it may not be perfect but its heading very strongly in the right direction.

  • graemekelleher

    How can we convince Mr Abbott and Mr Hockey?