Latest UN Climate Report: Little Room Left for Sceptics

***This blog was written by Paul Tobin (University of York) and originally published on Political Insight on 2nd April 2014***


First theorised by Joseph Fourier in 1824 and calculated by Svante Arrhenius in 1896, only those willing to disregard decades of evidence could challenge the existence of human-induced climate change.  Monday 31st March saw the release of the latest global report on climate change. Based on over 12,000 scientific publications and written by authors from around the world, the report further emphasises the confidence of the scientific community that human-induced climate change is both real and taking place right now. But as the science becomes more settled with every passing year, the political resolve to respond to such dire warnings remains in the balance.

What is the IPCC?

Published every five to six years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed in 1988 as a means of supporting the UN’s annual climate change conferences (think Kyoto in 1997, or Copenhagen in 2009). The current Assessment Report is the fifth since 1990 and as always is divided into three segments. The first of this round of segments, published last September, examined the physical science basis for climate change. Monday’s report was the second segment, focusing on the Earth’s vulnerability to climate change and how humanity can adapt to the threats posed. The third and final part relates to the mitigation of climate change and will be completed in April.

Each report reflects a staggering global effort, similar in scale to the coding of the human genome. Monday’s Report was written by 243 lead authors and 66 review editors from 70 countries, receiving over 50,000 review comments. From a political science perspective, it is the ‘Intergovernmental’ part of the IPCC’s name that is crucial- the IPCC comprises all 195 member states of the UN, and the latest Report’s Summary for Policymakers was approved line-by-line by this global taskforce. Indeed, the IPCC does not conduct its own research, but rather brings together existing evidence with a view to providing an overview of the latest information. Moreover, with drafts that are publically accessible prior to publication, climate change sceptics are welcome to participate in the publication, provided they have the evidence to support their claims. So why do IPCC reports draw so much controversy?

The last IPCC report, from 2007, drew criticism from certain corners of the media for its‘apocalyptic tone’, but it was the inclusion of a non-peer-reviewed source, claiming the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035, that drew the most attention. However, it was the reaction to this error, rather than the error itself, that is of greater interest to members of the PSA. Although the location of a single error in a 3,000 page report reflects exceptionally high levels of academic practice, the media response implied that such a mistake challenged the foundations of climate science. Moreover, such a mistake may have been avoided had more of the sceptics engaged with the drafting process, instead of waiting for publication before searching for errors. Clearly, the desire to challenge – rather than improve – climate science resides heavily within certain communities.

What does the latest Report say?

Featuring a handy Summary for Policymakers, the latest Report focuses on the planet’s vulnerability to climate change and how humanity can adapt to present and future threats. A litany of dangers are featured within the Report’s pages, including flooding, disruption to farming, species extinction, desertification, sea-level rise and the spread of diseases and pests to previously untouched regions. The following map demonstrates that nowhere is immune to the effects of climate change.

As a result, the Report challenges the claim made by some that climate change could be a good thing. The warming of colder regions may lead to fewer winter deaths and new farming possibilities, but these benefits may be undone by extreme weather events or the spread of new diseases. Additionally, the potential mass migration resulting from worse-affected regions to safer climes could exacerbate pre-existing racial and immigration tensions that across Europe and North America. Climate change is a threat-multiplier that is likely to exacerbate conflicts over resources and space; although not the only factor, the phenomenon has been identified as significantly worsening the conflict in Sudan.

These political challenges are perhaps the biggest obstacles to face from climate change. While richer states are more able to adapt to future threats, economically developing states are likely to bear the brunt of climate change, yet are the least able to respond. For these poorer nations, adaptation is not an option. As a result, while the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson may be right when he argues that climate change “is something we can adapt to over time” provided the UK is willing to pay billions for the privilege, the most effective strategy is likely to involve mitigating the worst effects from occurring in the first place.

What are the policy implications?

The Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organisation has argued that “now, ignorance is no longer a good excuse” for rapidly altering the planet’s climate. Yet the political traction for addressing climate change has faced a hiatus since around 2009, when the triple-whammy of global economic crisisdisappointment in Copenhagen and the infamous ‘Climategate’ theft of researchers’ emails weakened ambition. Then there is also the threat of issue fatigue as many may wonder why climate change is taking so long to address, while the persistence of scepticism has weakened confidence about the veracity of climate science in recent years.

Yet despite these obstacles, as the weight of evidence strengthens annually, the onus for finding a solution is shifting from scientists to politicians. In response to this latest IPCC Report, Ed Davey, the UK Climate and Energy Secretary, has argued that it will be more costly in the long-run not to act on climate change. Meanwhile, previous ‘self-binding’ legislation – such as the UK’s Climate Change Act of 2008 – has rendered the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions a legal requirement in many states around the world.

As such, it is likely that the final instalment of this Fifth Assessment Report, due to be published in April, will draw the greatest scrutiny from policy-makers and sceptics alike, as it details approaches to mitigating the worst of climate change. From a policy perspective, it appears that three avenues are available; unilateral ambition, regional co-operation and global agreements. While the disappointment in Copenhagen showed the (not insurmountable) weaknesses inherent in global summits, states are unlikely to respond to climate change individually for fear of weakening their economic competitiveness. Regional coalitions such as the European Union may well be the most effective means for responding to climate change as they facilitate co-operation between similar states. Yet with the rise of Euroscepticism across Europe, it is unlikely that climate change mitigation will gain much traction in the anti-EU camp. If an effective response to climate change is to be realised, however, at least one of these avenues must be pursued.

The science is settled. Over 97% of climate research between 1991 and 2011 supported the existence of human-induced climate change. It is now for policy-makers to decide how best to respond to this information.