IPCC AR5 completed: science has spoken – cut deep, cut soon

The IPCC’s Fifth Report process reached its climax in Copenhagen yesterday with the release of the final “synthesis” report (download here), which pulls together all the strands from the three working group reports on the physical science (Working Group 1), climate impacts (WG2) and how to go about dealing with the problem (WG3). Launching the report, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon was blunt:

“Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in their message. Leaders must act. Time is not on our side.”

Given that it’s based entirely on the work done for the underlying reports, there are no surprises the synthesis report for anyone who has been following climate news over the last year, but what is striking is the emphasis on the need for rapid and deep cuts in fossil fuel emissions – and a corresponding steep increase in investment in renewable energy sources. Ban Ki-Moon emphasised the point in a comment aimed at investors:

“Please reduce your investments in the coal- and fossil fuel-based economy and [move] to renewable energy.”

Writing in the Guardian, Bill McKibben notes an increase in the urgency of the language being used:

This week, with the release of their new synthesis report, [scientists] are trying the words “severe, widespread, and irreversible” to describe the effects of climate change – which for scientists, conservative by nature, falls just short of announcing that climate change will produce a zombie apocalypse plus random beheadings plus Ebola. It’s hard to imagine how they will up the language in time for the next big global confab in Paris.

The Guardian’s coverage is – as always – exemplary. In addition to Damian Carrington’s news report, they also give good graph. See also the BBC, and Stuff – who take the AP coverage.

New Zealand’s climate change minister Tim Groser issued a press release to welcome the report:

It is the best scientific assessment of climate issues available. I’m delighted that New Zealand scientists have contributed to this body of knowledge.

If that’s really the case, why is Groser enacting policies which are currently pointing NZ towards a 50% increase in emissions instead of deep cuts? Perhaps he should be listening to Ban Ki-moon when he says “”There is a myth that climate action will cost heavily, but inaction will cost much more.”

IPCC WG2 impacts report released: fire, floods and rising seas in all our futures

After the usual run of late nights and argument, the IPCC has released the second part of its fifth report — the Working Group 2 report on climate impacts and risks management. Commenting on the report, VUW climate scientist Professor Tim Naish said “this latest report makes it quite clear that New Zealand is under-prepared and faces a significant ‘adaptation deficit’ in the context of the projected impacts and risks from global average warming of +2 to 4°C by the end of the century.”

The IPCC identifies eight key regional risks for New Zealand and Australia:

  • significant impacts on coral reefs in Australia as oceans warm and acidify
  • loss of montane ecosystems in Australia, as climate warms and snow lines rise
  • increased frequency of and intensity of flooding in NZ and Australia
  • water resources in Southern Australia will be under increased pressure
  • more intense heatwaves will bring increased death rates and infrastructure damage
  • increasing risks of damaging wildfires in New Zealand and southern Australia
  • increased risks to coastal infrastructure and ecosystems from sea level rise
  • risk of severe drying in parts of Australia could hit agricultural production

For New Zealand, extreme weather events such as flooding and heatwaves are expected to increase in frequency and severity, and rainfall is expected to increase on the already wet west coast and decrease in the east and north east. Sea level rise of up to one metre is expected to cause significant problems for coastal communities.

VUW’s Jim Renwick points to sea level rise as a big issue:

Every 10cm of rise triples the risk of a given inundation event, and we are expecting something like a metre of rise this century. That would mean today’s 1-in-100 year event occurs at least annually at many New Zealand coastal locations. New Zealand has a great deal of valuable property and infrastructure close to the coast that will be increasingly at risk as time goes on.

The Summary for Policymakers of the WG2 report is available here (pdf), and the final draft of the full report can be downloaded from this page. The Australia and New Zealand chapter (25) is here (pdf) and the Small Islands (Ch 29) here (pdf).

A huge amount of coverage of the report’s findings has already hit the net, and there will be more to come. Check out The Guardian‘s take on the five key points in the report, The Conversation’s examination of climate health risks, Graham Readfearn’s commentary on 25 years of IPCC warnings, and Peter Griffin’s look at the prospects for agriculture. I’ll have a post about the NZ political response to the report tomorrow.

Sunday Times opens another gate

Jonathan Leake at the UK Sunday Times has been swift to hail another supposedly damaging inaccuracy in the IPCC report.  Africagate, the headline calls it.  It occurs in the Working Group II report, which deals with the question of impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. I’ve looked up the section, which is in chapter 9 of the report, looking at possible impacts in Africa. The section is headed Agriculture (page 447-448 of the chapter).  It opens with this sentence:

Results from various assessments of impacts of climate change on agriculture based on various climate models and SRES emissions scenarios indicate certain agricultural areas that may undergo negative changes.


There follows some closely referenced accounts of possible negative effects, as well as some possible positive effects. It’s in the course of the negative effects that the offending sentence is found:

In other countries, additional risks that could be exacerbated by climate change include greater erosion, deficiencies in yields from rain-fed agriculture of up to 50% during the 2000-2020 period, and reductions in crop growth period (Agoumi, 2003).

The Agoumi paper with which this sentence is referenced is apparently not peer-reviewed.  I’ve already pointed out in another post that it is not a requirement for IPCC authors that all references be to peer-reviewed material, and in the Working Group II and III reports it is likely that other literature will be cited as well. (Working Group III addresses mitigation possibilities.)  But not only is it not peer reviewed, it is a policy paper written in 2003 for the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a Canadian think tank. Professor Agoumi is Moroccan, and his paper apparently looks at prospects for Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

I don’t know what sort of weight the Agoumi report should be allowed. A lengthy blog on the British Democracy Forum website, which I presume provided the material for the Sunday Times article, presents a case for doubting its reliability. I’ll suspend judgment in the meantime, since the same blog triumphantly links the matter to “Climategate”, “Glaciergate”, and “Amazongate” and suggests together they spell the demise of the IPCC and Dr Pachauri.  I’ve already said what I think of “Amazongate”, and Gareth has written on “Climategate” here and here.  Granted the Himalayan glacier reference was an error, which has been acknowledged by the IPCC.

However, even if it turns out to have been a mistake to have included the findings of the Agoumi paper in the IPCC report it hardly warrants the hyped up attention Jonathan Leake gives it in his Sunday Times article (yes, the same Jonathan Leake whose sloppy journalism I wrote about here and here).  I don’t read the IPCC reports as revealed truth and it has never occurred to me to take the Working Group II report as anything other than an outline of the kind of effects we can expect to see increasingly as global warming takes hold.  Nor does the report itself claim anything remotely approaching certitude  – words like ‘may’ and ‘could’ in the above extracts are typical of its statements.

However, bit by bit the public is being told that alarming cracks are opening up in the credibility of the IPCC report and of climate scientists generally. Even the Guardian seems to me to have flirted with the possibility in the extraordinary time and attention it has given to the email saga.   And if recent public opinion polls are anything to go by some of the public is buying it.

Trifles are being magnified at the cost of proper attention to the overwhelming reality of climate science.  The great danger threatening the human future has not gone away because journalists and others find it more interesting to focus on the pedigree of a few references or the workplace character of a small group among thousands of scientists. Journalists and their editors might ask themselves how they can justify giving so much attention to comparative trivia and allowing public attention to be diverted from the mounting threat ahead.

For those of us who accept that the threat is real and present there is no option but to keep affirming and trying to communicate the science and to hope that the ground currently being lost in public opinion can be regained and strengthened before we run out of even more time.