UN climate report: No new news, mostly bad news

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body set up to provide consensus scientific assessments of climate change, its costs, its severity, and possible actions governments could take, on Nov. 2,  issued its summary report on the fifth round of assessments, issued every seven years.

The IPCC, winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, is continuing its work to weigh all the various studies on the impacts of climate change, and offer a sober, scientifically well-founded opinion on how bad things are, and what might be done to make the situation better.

The new report breaks no new ground. This report is a summary of the three reports already issued over the last year, which focused in much more detail on specific aspects of the science. The report starts: “Human influence on the climate system is clear and growing, with impacts observed on all continents. If left unchecked, climate change will increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. However, options are available to adapt to climate change, and implementing stringent mitigations activities can ensure that the impacts of climate change remain within a manageable range, creating a brighter and more sustainable future.”

The summary of the science is quite serious – each IPCC report over the past few decades has made its predictions of the most likely outcome of climate change more severe. At the same time, the accuracy and detail of the science which backs up those predictions are reported with higher and higher confidence, as new studies confirm, and in some cases extend, previous predictions, and as real life confirms the reality of the changes already happening as a result of more than a century of industrial greenhouse gas emissions.

This summary report argues that the world has to engage in a much more aggressive effort to transition away from burning fossil fuels, stating that the world needs to be completely off such fuels by 2100. This adds scientific weight to the concerns increasingly offered by some financial investment advisors that much of the fossil fuel reserves, on which the stock market valuation of oil and gas companies is based, must be left in the ground. This is new fuel for the divestment campaigns picking up speed on many college campuses, on pension fund boards, and in many municipalities.

At the same time, there are worries that the IPCC predictions underestimate the dangers we face, particularly about the rising sea level. Part of this comes from the nature of the IPCC process itself, which relies on averages and ranges to predict the most likely outcomes. These averages and ranges discount the most dire studies and predictions. As well, the IPCC doesn’t, and can’t, take into account the greatest worries of some scientists when they are not yet backed up by proven science: For example, many scientists studying ice sheets and glaciers predict much higher sea level increases due to faster than previously predicted melting. But they can’t yet prove how fast this process will happen. This means that the IPCC does not base itself on the worst fears and hence is cautious and conservative in its predictions.

Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, is among those who appreciate the seriousness of the IPCC report but feel it discounts the likelihood of more disastrous harm. McKibben says, “This new document – actually a synthesis of three big working group reports released over the last year – almost certainly underestimates the actual severity of the situation.” He goes on to write that “breaking the power of the fossil fuel industry won’t be easy, especially since it has to happen fast. It has to happen, in fact, before the carbon we’ve unleashed into the atmosphere breaks the planet. I’m not certain we’ll win this fight – but, thanks to the IPCC, no one will ever be able to say they weren’t warned.”

McKibben goes on: “The scientists have done their job; no sentient person, including Republican Senate candidates, can any longer believe in their heart of hearts that there’s not a problem here. The scientific method has triumphed: Over a quarter of a century, researchers have reached astonishing consensus on a basic problem in chemistry and physics.

“And the engineers have done just as well. The price of a solar panel has dropped by more than 90 percent over the last 25 years, and continues to plummet. In the few places they have actually been deployed at scale, the results are astonishing: There were days this summer when Germany generated 75 percent of its power from the wind and the sun.”

The report is not all doom and gloom. “The solutions are many and allow for continued economic and human development. All we need is the will to change, which we trust will be motivated by knowledge and an understanding of the science of climate change,” said R. K. Pachauri, Chair of the IPCC.

The report is about summarizing the consensus most agreed on by climate scientists the world over. It does not deal with how to build a movement to create the change it calls for. A worldwide movement, on exhibit at the People’s Climate March of 400,000 in New York in September, is growing rapidly as more and more people are convinced by the science and as more and more people directly experience the results of the climate change already happening. Divestment campaigns, campaigns against escalating corporate extraction of fossil fuels, such as the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, mass marches and petitions, new coalitions like the Cowboy and Indian Alliance, and many local environmental struggles, are complementing the scientific and technological work to ameliorate the effects of climate change. Battles against business as usual in the energy industry are taking a toll on the public perceptions of those giant corporations, like Exxon Mobil, which plan to continue to find extreme sources of fossil fuels and exploit them.

As Naomi Klein notes in her new book “This Changes Everything,” “[O]ur economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion.” She notes that “Climate change isn’t an ‘issue’ to add to the list…. It is a civilizational wake-up call. A powerful message-spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions – telling us we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing the planet.” Building a mass movement of billions around the world to confront the power of the corporations is necessary to implement the policy proposals of the IPCC.

Photo: Robert van Waarden/People’s Climate March Flickr page

See also: The environmental movement: which way forward? by Marc Brodine, published October 28 in Political Affairs.


Marc Brodine
Marc Brodine

Marc Brodine is a former AFSCME member and local officer, he is currently an artist and guitar player. Marc writes on environmental issues and is the author of an extended essay on Marxist philosophy and the environment, titled Dialectics of Climate Change