The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2013 report reduces uncertainty, but seems to have lost much of its punch. Are the world, its leaders and the public tiring of green warnings, as the financial crisis and media spotlight move on? Jon Herbert reports.

Climate change is an emotional subject for Christiana Figueres. Tearfully, she spoke recently in London of the impact that global warming will have in “condemning future generations before they are even born”. It was, she said, “completely unfair and immoral”. What really concerns her is the lack of progress among world leaders in agreeing on any form of concerted action.

As Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Ms Figueres is the head of the UN body that has to deliver an all-embracing global climate treaty by 2015, ready to come into force in 2020.

Has environmental change slipped on to the backburner? For an agreement to be signed in Paris in 2015, substantial progress has to be made in the next 12 months, leading up to a draft text being concluded when the nations meet next in Peru in 2014.

Innocent bystanders

One suggestion is that the world is beginning to suffer from the so-called “bystander effect”. This established psychological phenomenon refers to the group behaviour in which no one steps forward to act in a crisis, because they assume that if it were important, someone would have already done so. The larger the group, the greater the bystander effect. With economic priorities on their minds, politicians are being passive, and no one is stepping forward on climate.

The reception received by the recent report from the IPCC suggests that this might be true. Its 2007 report made waves, but its 2013 report seems to have been greeted as an inevitable repeat of earlier warnings. It has also been the target of scepticism, despite the fact that its real news is grim.

The 2013 report is unequivocal that, on the basis of a wealth of scientific evidence, global warming is taking place on the ground, in the air and in the oceans, and that scientists are now 95% certain that humans are the “dominant cause” of warming since the 1950s.

The panel is adamant that continuing greenhouse gas emissions will cause further warming and change all aspects of the climate system. Halting this can only be achieved with “substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions”, it says.

In 36 pages of complex reading, the IPPC says that observable changes in the climatic system since the 1950s have been “unprecedented over decades to millennia”. It adds that each of the last three decades have been warmer than the last on the earth’s surface, as well as being warmer than at any time since 1850, and probably in the last 1400 years. The IPCC quotes a warmer atmosphere and oceans, retreating snow and ice, a new rise in global sea levels, and high measurable greenhouse gas concentrations. It predicts mean sea-level rises of between 26cm and 82cm.

Lower impact

However, several factors seem to have drawn the IPCC’s sting. In 2007, its report included an erroneous prediction of the speed at which Himalayan ice was melting. It quickly withdrew this and apologised, but mud sticks. Recent reports that global surface air temperatures have not risen since 1998 have also been questioned by the press. In addition, the IPCC’s methodology has been criticised.

The IPCC itself does not commission any original research. It operates with a very small staff in Geneva. The panel’s methodology is to review, analyse and aggregate the work of many thousands of researchers and scientists who are specialists in their fields. Three reports will be released on: physical science; impacts; and mitigating options. The first, the recent physical science report, had 209 leading authors and 50 reviewing editors drawn from 39 countries. However, this amalgamation of super-reports every five years might be better replaced with a more fluid and current assessment of climate science, it has been suggested.

The views of climate change sceptics have also been widely reported. The scientific community has responded with concerns that scientific evidence and subjective opinion are oranges and lemons that do not mix. The overwhelming consensus is that the scientific evidence points unquestionably to the conclusion that humanity is responsible for more than half of the observed increase in temperatures, and that there is genuine good reason to worry about world climate and the environment.

However, the 2013 report does amend a key figure from 2007. The air temperature range given for a doubling of atmospheric CO2 — the so-called equilibrium climate sensitivity — was previously stated to be 2.0ºC to 4.5ºC. This has now been revised to 1.5ºC to 4.5ºC. Anything above 2.0ºC is considered to be dangerous. It means that there might now be a slim chance of undershooting catastrophic warming.

More answers needed

Several issues have concerned the minds of the 195 governments that commission the IPCC’s reports. One is concern over the preferential rate at which polar regions seem to be heating up. In the Arctic, the release of vast methane plumes from under the melting permafrost is said to be a new threat.

The role of the seas, in general, needs a better understanding. Scientists now believe that ocean warming accounts for 90% of the missing energy that has been stored between 1971 and 2010.

It has long been known that the El Nino effects in the Pacific Ocean have preceded an increase in global flood and drought events. Now the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon — along with its cooler twin, La Nina — is thought to be closely connected to a cyclical cooling effect that might begin to explain why air temperature rises have paused. The net El Nino effect is movements of warm and colder waters across the Pacific that impact on rainfall and temperatures as far away as Australia, Siberia and Antarctica.

Almost no El Nino effects were recorded for the last ice age. There is some evidence that global warming might increase their frequency, even resulting in a near-permanent El Nino, bringing potential drought conditions over key rainforest regions — the world’s “green lung”. Research continues.

Remember the banking crisis — no climate bailout

There have been political warnings, too. The head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has asked governments to remember the banking crisis. Angel Gurria says that the warning signs for a climatic crisis are far clearer than the warnings of the financial crisis ever were.

However, in contrast, there can be no equivalent of a climate bailout similar to the banking system intervention that was available to world leaders five years ago. Mr Gurria’s comments were aimed at countries that continue to tarry over emissions reductions and leading nations whose commitment seems to be weakening. Monetary matters continue to dominate. UK Chancellor George Osborne commented in September 2013 that Britain should not be “in front of the rest of the world” over combating climate change, if that meant pricing itself out of international markets with green energy policies.

Mr Gurria and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon are both trying to drum up international support for the 2015 Paris conference being organised by Ms Figueres. Mr Gurria noted that, because of Britain’s climate leadership, the “EU has seen that this is the way to go — and the rest of the world, too”.

He is also concerned that the temptation to use increasingly available fossil fuel resources poses a new danger. “We grew up with scarcity of oil and fuel, now we are entering a world of abundance, so we’re really going to have to think very hard on this,” he said.

Global poverty

New research suggests that extreme weather events resulting from climate change will keep the world’s poorest people poor. A report from the Overseas Development Institute estimates that some 325 million people — a twentieth of the world’s population — will be exposed to natural hazards by 2030, wiping out the progress made against poverty.

Sub-Saharan Africa, along with Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan, are a forgotten minority, it says, that does not make the news headlines because deaths are relatively low, but are the real hidden victims of man-made global warming.


First published by Croner-i on 12 Nov 2014



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