Should we be worried about latest UN climate report by IPCC?
After all the talk about the need for climate action, it’s time for a reality check. On Monday, the world will receive the latest United Nations climate report. And it’s a big one.
Hundreds of scientists who make up the so-called Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been hard at work behind the scenes. They produced a number of reports in the last round, which started in 2015. But on Monday everything comes together in the so-called synthesis report.
It will explain how greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet and then look at the consequences. There is an emphasis on where we are most vulnerable, as well as efforts to adapt. And then how we act to reduce emissions and mitigate climate change.
Gathering all the evidence from every corner of the world is a massive undertaking, let alone scrutinizing the science to reach a consensus. It’s a process that has been repeated several times since it began more than three decades ago.
This is the sixth round of reporting. And it won’t be the last. But this is a pivotal moment, as the chance of limiting warming and averting dangerous climate change is dwindling.
What is the IPCC and why do we need it?
The IPCC consists of 195 member countries tasked with preparing comprehensive and objective assessments of the scientific evidence on climate change.
The World Economic Forum classifies the failure of climate protection measures as the greatest risk on a global level in the next ten years. And several others of the top 10 global risks – extreme weather, biodiversity loss, damage to the human environment and natural resource crises – will be exacerbated by climate change.
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Governments, industries and communities are becoming increasingly aware of the need to tackle climate change, especially when predictions become reality.
The scientific effort to understand the causes, effects and solutions is great and growing. Tens of thousands of new peer-reviewed scientific studies on climate change are published every year. There must be a way to identify key messages from this vast body of scientific evidence and use that information to make better decisions. That’s what the IPCC reports do.
The IPCC process also provides a framework for the scientific community to organize and coordinate their efforts. Each reporting cycle is aligned with an international scientific effort that uses standardized experiments to test the reliability of current climate models.
The experiments entail several possible scenarios for how atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations might change in the future, depending on decisions made today. The range of results produced by different models in these trials helps us determine how confident we are about the expected impact of climate change in the future.
A key aspect of the IPCC reports is that they are produced jointly by scientists and governments. The summary of each report is negotiated and approved line by line, with consensus of all IPCC member governments. This process ensures that the reports stay true to the underlying science, but also pull out the key information that governments need.
What can we expect from Monday’s report?
The synthesis report will draw on all six reports published in the current cycle.
This includes three so-called “working group reports” on:
the scientific basis of climate change
Impact, Adaptation and Vulnerability
In addition, three special reports from across these working groups addressed key issues where governments called for rapid assessments to help them make decisions. They covered:
Global warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius
climate change and land
Ocean and cryosphere in a changing climate
The headlines from this cycle of IPCC reports have been clearer than ever. They leave absolutely no room to dispute human-caused warming and the need for urgent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions this decade. We can expect similarly strong and clear headlines from Monday’s report.
How have IPCC reports changed?
A review of IPCC reports over the past 33 years shows how our understanding of climate change has improved. The first report from 1990 states: “Conclusive evidence of the enhanced greenhouse effect from observations is not likely for more than a decade”. Fast forward to 2021 and the corresponding assessment now says, “It is clear that human impact has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.”
Also read: IPCC report to gather key facts on climate crisis, says Jim Skea
In some cases, the pace of change has dramatically exceeded expectations. In 1990, West Antarctica was a region of concern, but it was not expected to lose significant amounts of ice over the next century. But through 2019, our observations show that glaciers in West Antarctica are retreating rapidly. This has contributed to accelerated global sea level rise.
There are also concerns about the stability of parts of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet that were once thought to be sheltered from human-caused global warming.
This shows the tendency of IPCC assessments to downplay the scientific evidence. Climate science is often accused of being alarmist – particularly by those trying to delay action on climate change – when in fact the opposite is true.
The preparation of IPCC reports in consensus with governments means that statements appearing in the reports’ summaries are justified by several lines of scientific evidence. This may fall short of current climate science discoveries.
Planning for the next IPCC assessment cycle, which is scheduled to begin in July of this year, is already under way. It is hoped that the next round of reports will be produced in time to inform the global stocktake in 2028, which will assess progress towards the Paris Agreement.
The current (sixth review) cycle has been grueling. Scientists have increased their commitment to working with governments to provide the clear and robust information needed.
Writing and approving reports in the midst of a global pandemic added to the challenges. Also the inclusion of three special reports in addition to the usual three working group reports.
The evidence for human-caused climate change is now clear. This has led to calls for future IPCC reports to more efficiently assess rapidly changing areas of science and to penetrate the working groups. This would bring together assessments of the causes, effects and solutions for central aspects of climate change in one report, instead of always being divided into individual working group reports.
The formation of the IPCC signaled that climate change was a major global issue. Despite this recognition more than three decades ago, and the IPCC’s increasingly worrying reports during that time, global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise year after year.
However, there is hope that we may be nearing the peak of global emissions. By the time the next IPCC reports are released, global climate action may finally have started to put the world on a more sustainable path.
We will see.