The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has now published the final version of its latest report. Before it appeared, we were led by the media to expect major changes from the earlier version. Some saw this as scientists having to withdraw exaggerated predictions, while others claimed that the report was being watered down through political pressure. In the event, while a few details have been altered, the basic message is the same as before. There is an overwhelming consensus is that the earth is getting warmer and that the chief cause is human activity, especially our profligate use of fossil fuels. It is already too late to prevent some serious consequences, especially in some Third World countries, but if we do not start to act now, the effects will be that much worse.
Almost the only estimate in the draft that has been significantly altered is the rise in sea level, which is now expected to be about half that predicted before. This is the first time that an important prediction on global warming has been revised downwards. Generally, as the models improve, the predictions go up. In particular, the key estimate, the expected increase in average temperature, keeps rising.
As the report is going to be taken as the definitive statement on climate change for some time to come, it is important to understand that the I in IPCC stands, not for international, but for intergovernmental. The report is based on the work of scientists from many countries, but nothing could be published that had not been agreed by governments, notably the USA and China, that were anxious to see it watered down.
Fortunately, the science is sufficiently widely known that governments could hardly demand major changes not supported by the evidence (Global Warming Is Happening, SiS 31). They might simply have refused to sign the report, but the lesson of the Kyoto Protocol is that this tactic too would have failed: the rest of the world would have gone ahead without them.
While the substance of the report remains the same, there were some significant changes in wording, mostly to soften the message. For very likely, read almost certain; and estimates of the effects of global warming are bound to be very conservative.
But the message is clear enough, and it is getting through. Even George Bush and the management of Exxon have given up claiming that climate change isnt happening. Instead, they are trying to play down the urgency of the situation and argue instead for measures such as more efficient automobile engines and technological fixes like mirrors in orbit around the Earth, anything that will provide an excuse for business as usual.
So there really has been little or no climb-down as hyped by the climate change sceptics, the official deniers. In the UK, Channel 4 screened a documentary The Great Climate Change Swindle by Martin Durkin, purporting to show that climate change has more to do with sunspots than with carbon emissions. It met a storm of criticism. Many people pointed out, for example, that the graphs shown were either out of date or just plain wrong. Durkins response was to complain of censorship, a bit rich coming from someone given 90 minutes of prime time British TV to make his case.
Similar, though less extreme misreporting has come from other parts of the media. For instance, the London Sunday Telegraph carried an article with the headline, UN downgrades mans impact on the climate. The first paragraph declared: Mankind has had less effect on global warming than previously supposed, a United Nations report on climate change will claim next year. It is only further down the article that we were told why the human effect on the climate has been less than expected: serious air pollution has caused more radiation to be reflected. But that means our effect on climate change in future is likely to be more than we would expect from past experience, not less.
The debate over climate change has been won, but only up to a point. Those with a vested interest in business as usual have not given up; they have only changed their tactics, and are now insisting instead that it is neither as serious or as imminent as the climate scientists tell us, and that the cost of acting now is far too high.
As the Stern Report (The Economics of Climate Change SiS 33) clearly demonstrated, however great the cost of action, the cost of doing nothing is much greater. The challenge is to convince governments of that, and to get them to put in place the necessary measures and binding international agreements. When even the Canadian province of Ontario refuses to take measures to comply with Kyoto because that would put it at a disadvantage relative to another Canadian province Alberta - that shows how difficult international cooperation is going to be. It will take real statesmanship.
Obviously, the rich countries will have to contribute more than our proportionate share, to help pay for adapting to climate change and to help third world countries move directly to low emissions technologies that are generally more expensive in the short term. In addition, because our per capita carbon emissions are higher than the world average, we will have to make bigger cuts. Stern estimated the cost of mitigating climate change at 1 per cent of global GDP, about a third of the annual growth. That is not going to have a serious effect on the standard of living of those of us who are already a lot better off than most of humanity.
One important warning that has not been sufficiently stressed in the Stern report or by anyone else is the cost of committing the world to doing the wrong things, as made clear in ISIS report Which Energy?. Our dwindling resources must be wisely and promptly invested to create a genuinely sustainable post fossil fuel economy. Time and energy are fast running out, not to mention the depleted water tables in the worlds major food baskets, which is turning once productive land into desert. The IPCCs recommendation of large-scale expansion of biofuels produced from bioenergy crops, including genetically modified crops, is a recipe for certain disaster (Biofuels: Biodevastation, Hunger & False Carbon Credits, SiS 33). Still more ominous is oil giant BPs recent buyout of our top universities at bargain-basement prices to do precisely that (full story starting p 4). This mad rush to the worlds end must be strenuously resisted.
Article first published 17/02/16
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