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The IPCC and new climate paths

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a unique public service that produces valuable scientific reports. But is yet another 1,000-page document what is needed now, asks Øyvind Paasche.

Øyvind Paasche
6 September 2013

Since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued a new report every fifth year that summarises the climate state of the planet. The cryosphere, the atmosphere, the biosphere, the oceans and the future - the condition and trends in each are scientifically examined.

The fifth colume - Assessment Report 5 (AR5) - will be published on 30 September 2013 (with the assessment for policymakers made available on 27 September). As with previous reports, it will highlight recent discoveries within the ever-growing realm of climate change. Whatever the particular findings, it is certain that one central scientific insight will run through the report like heartwood through a giant tree: continued emissions of greenhouse gases are steering the earth's climate away from the natural variability that used to define it. In other words, it will repeat an important truth that everybody already knows.

A successful foundation

Thse IPCC reports do a tremendous job in gathering, filtering and connecting a wide variety of scientific data in a coherent and convincing way. They build scientific knowledge that have undergone peer-review and been accepted for publication in reputable journals. The total numbers of references are overwhelming, even for single chapters. The expert teams in charge of the various fourteen chapters are highly capable, and the workload considerable.

Through an extensive review process a strong interaction is established between reviewers and the authors of individual chapters, which is without parallel in the world of science. This, importantly, ensures that feedback from a wider community is heard and considered, which is not standard operating procedure.

Moreover, all chapters pursue the least common multiple within their respective fields, which is digested in the "executive summary for policymakers". In a sense, this is the single most important outcome of the report - after all, it is the part policymakers must consider (and perhaps even read!)

All things considered, the collaborative effort of the IPCC has not been in vain. These reports have been remarkably successful in putting climate high on the political agenda, and in raising public awareness about complex scientific issues, including the importance of CO2.

But with four reports already stacked on the shelves, perhaps the time has come to ask if the continued production of these reports represents the way forward for the IPCC. Should other approaches be contemplated, even including the replacement of the IPCC with something new?

A time to explore

An argument can be made that the strongest message the climate-science community could possibly send to the public is that these all-encompassing reports are no longer needed. By now, it is proven beyond reasonable doubt that anthropogenic emissions drive the global climate in a unwanted direction, and that the process will continue undiminished force in decades to come. There is unequivocal evidence that humans are having a significant impact on the Earth’s climate.

The data presented in successive IPCC reports have already been published, are easily available for researchers who need to seek them out, and are widely cited in the scientific literature and elsewhere. Climate scientists will continue to do our science, for the science is and will continue to be important. But it is worth considering whether donating hours, days and weeks to assembling and producing consensus reports that are five years in the making is really the best use of scientists' time - especially as the only people this work reaches are those already engaged with the global challenge of climate change.  

Thomas F Stocker, the co-chair for WG-1, wrote in the journal Nature Geoscience that the “comprehensive period reports were a great success in the past…”, but that the time has come to “…explore alternative approaches to achieve the same goal of disseminating the best and most robust understanding of “the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change” (see "Adapting the assessments", Nature Geoscience, 6/7-8, 2013).

But how can climate science be better communicated than through these voluminous reports? One obvious answer is that individual researchers, or groups such as “concerned scientists”, should carry out this task every day, across the globe, and with enthusiasm and love for the discipline they are devoted to. An exemplary figure in this regard is Stephen H Schneider (1945-2010). Such important work is carried on by initiatives like RealClimate, which is driven by a core group of scientists from the United States and Europe, although other researchers also frequently contribute. Gavin Schmidt (of Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies [GISS]) has been instrumental in running this project and deserves recognition (although he himself would never ask for it) beyond the scientific community.

Another way to communicate recent scientific discoveries is to target specific climate sub-systems. For instance, a consensus report on Arctic and Antarctic sea ice is long overdue. The same can be said about ocean acidification (notwithstanding the upcoming Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme [AMAP] report). In a different vein, the SREX report on weather extremes, including floods and droughts, published in 2012, arguably represents a more dynamic side of the IPCC, even if it comes in at 600 pages.

The purpose of these reports, regardless of their length, is to help society achieve informed decision-making. Yet stakeholders can be informed and still ignore the information presented, which many would say is precisely the current situation. Clearly, the IPCC cannot be held responsible for the absence of measures with respect to emissions of greenhouse gases. On the contrary, these extraordinarily interesting efforts have helped raise awareness and hard-won insight concerning daunting issues. But are there not other, more efficient ways forward that would command action? I am sure a workshop with creative minds could come up with good strategies of this kind.

It is easy to be follow the road already built and borrow the prestige that comes from driving on it (that is, being part of the acclaimed IPCC convoy); but is the road going in the direction scientists - and the wider public - need to go? Now is perhaps the time to ask if the IPCC’s celebrated work should be continued along the same old highway or if new paths should be sought out. Much, after all, is at stake.

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Some recommended organisations:

RealClimate - “RealClimate is a commentary site on climate science by working climate scientists for the interested public and journalists. We aim to provide a quick response to developing stories and provide the context sometimes missing in mainstream commentary. The discussion here is restricted to scientific topics and will not get involved in any political or economic implications of the science. All posts are signed by the author(s), except ‘group’ posts which are collective efforts from the whole team. This is a moderated forum.”

Union of Concerned Scientists - "The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future. What began as a collaboration between students and faculty members at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1969 is now an alliance of more than 400,000 citizens and scientists. UCS members are people from all walks of life: parents and businesspeople, biologists and physicists, teachers and students. Our members understand that scientific analysis - not political calculations or corporate hype - should guide our efforts to secure responsible changes in government policy, corporate practices, and consumer choices.”

350.org - “350.org is building a global grassroots movement to solve the climate crisis. Our online campaigns, grassroots organizing, and mass public actions are led from the bottom up by thousands of volunteer organizers in over 188 countries.”

The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media - The Yale Climate Forum “…provides original reporting, commentary, and analysis on climate change - one of the most important and challenging issues of our time. Edited by veteran environmental journalist and journalism educator Bud Ward, our online publication engages a dynamic global community of journalists, scientists, educators, and communicators. We strive to improve understanding of, and nurture better communication on, climate change … for the benefit of the public in arriving at sound individual and public policy actions. We invite comments from those who educate on causes, consequences, challenges, and approaches on climate change. Share your ideas, experiences, successes, and challenges. Constructively engage with our community to foster better understanding of the climate challenges facing society"

Climate Communication - Climate Communication is a non-profit science and outreach project funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the ClimateWorks Foundation. Climate Communication operates as a project of the Aspen Global Change Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to furthering the scientific understanding of Earth systems and global environmental change.

Climate Central - "Climate Central surveys and conducts scientific research on climate change and informs the public of key findings. Our scientists publish and our journalists report on climate science, energy, sea level rise, wildfires, drought, and related topics. Climate Central is not an advocacy organization. We do not lobby, and we do not support any specific legislation, policy or bill"

PAGES (Past Global Changes) - "PAGES supports research aimed at understanding the Earth’s past environment in order to make predictions for the future. We encourage international and interdisciplinary collaborations and seek to promote the involvement of scientists from developing countries in the global paleo-community discourse. PAGES scope of interest includes the physical climate system, biogeochemical cycles, ecosystem processes, biodiversity, and human dimensions, on different time scales—Pleistocene, Holocene, last millennium and the recent past. Founded in 1991, PAGES is a core project of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) and is funded by the U.S. and Swiss National Science Foundations, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)."

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