How the UN Climate Panel is keeping everyone on their toes
Washington suffered one of the hottest summers in living memory in 1988. It was about 36 degrees when James Hansen expressed his concerns about climate change in a Senate hearing on June 23. Hansen, director of NASA’s Institute for Space Studies, gave his story at the invitation of Democratic Senator Timothy Wirth.
Later, Wirth said that he had opened the windows in the room all night especially for the occasion, causing the air conditioning to flip and it was sweltering hot. In this way, according to him, members of the Energy and Raw Materials Committee could already experience first-hand what climate change had in store for the world.
Hansen told the politicians that they should no longer ignore the problem. “It’s high time to stop the rambling and recognize that the evidence that global warming exists is quite strong,” the climate expert said, according to a report in The New York Times. The headline above the article read: ‘Global warming has begun’.
In the 1980s, fears of climate change grew. But how strong was the evidence? How bad would it get? Was it necessary to do something about it? So what? These were questions that had to be answered clearly before politicians would dare to take action. Those questions prompted the creation of the IPCC, the intergovernmental panel on climate change, in 1988.
1 What is the IPCC?
The IPCC is especially not very much. It is not a scientific institute that does its own research. It is not a large organization of climate scientists with high-paying jobs. It is really little more than a modest Geneva-based secretariat that falls under two United Nations agencies, namely the World Meteorological Organization and the UN Environment Program UNEP.
The aim is to keep governments informed of all ‘policy-relevant’ knowledge about climate change, but without prescribing what to do. To this end, the IPCC calls on (thousands) of climate scientists, who often work as volunteers for years on reports that draw up the state of affairs in the field of climate change. A report is issued once every five to seven years.
Next week, for the sixth time since the IPCC was established, the first part of a new cycle of three reports will be published. That part is about the scientific basis of climate change. The other two parts, which will be published in February and March next year, describe possibilities for preventing climate change and the (socio-economic) consequences of climate change in different regions of the world. On the basis of these three reports, a ‘synthesis’ will also be published in about a year’s time.
2 Why has such an international organization been set up? That is not the case in many other policy areas.
There are several important reasons for this. Climate change was a fairly abstract problem when the IPCC was established, with effects several decades behind its causes. This summer’s heatwaves, floods and wildfires—insofar as climate change plays a role—are caused by excess greenhouse gases dumped into the atmosphere decades ago. And if the world were to stop using fossil fuels today, warming will continue for a while.
In addition, warming can cause irreversible changes. Once the ice on Greenland or the Arctic ice starts to melt significantly, there is no stopping it in the long run. The same goes for the melting of the permafrost.
In addition, greenhouse gases do not respect limits. The Netherlands can still pursue such a stringent climate policy, if the US and China do not do the same, then the Dutch policy is meaningless. Humanity can only solve climate change together. Combining the knowledge of scientists from as many countries as possible in reports that are subsequently endorsed by all countries increases the chance that countries will take their responsibility.
3 How much influence do countries have on the outcome of the reports? Do they still meet scientific criteria if politics gets involved?
The involvement of politics is limited to the summary of the reports, which is intended for policy makers. The reports use only scientific research and often span more than a thousand pages. They are then read by expert reviewers who can submit comments. All these comments are individually assessed and processed. And after the report is published, the comments, and the reactions to them, will also be made public, so that everyone can check them.
The reports use scientific research and often span over a thousand pages
A preliminary draft of the report, due Monday, has been reviewed by 750 experts, according to the IPCC. They submitted 28,462 responses. A second version had over 1,200 readers (both scientists and government experts) and generated 51,887 comments. The summary made on the basis of the report generated more than 8,000 comments from 47 different countries.
Over the past two weeks, the summary of the report has been presented sentence by sentence, sometimes even word for word, to policy makers and experts from the participating UN member states – the scientists are there to ensure that the final text does not deviate from what is in the report. itself.
The final result was approved on Friday. This has the advantage that there is consensus on this and that no one can question the science it describes anymore, not even a country like Saudi Arabia, which often resists alarming statements about the consequences of climate change.
This is especially important for the negotiations on international climate policy, where the need for action cannot be called into question.
4 Nevertheless, the IPCC has regularly come under heavy fire in the past. Wasn’t that right?
In 2009, two years after the IPCC received the Nobel Peace Prize, the server of a British climate institute was hacked. Tens of thousands of e-mails from climate scientists littered the streets, Climategate was born – possibly intended to disrupt the important climate summit in Copenhagen that took place shortly afterwards.
According to climate skeptics, the e-mails showed an image of scientists playing the ball to each other and trying to exclude critical thinkers. The phrase ‘Hide the decline‘ (hide the decline) one of the scientists used to describe something on a graph was seen as evidence that climate scientists were deliberately withholding information to make the warming look more serious than it really was.
Various investigations followed in which all climate scientists were eventually exonerated. Sure, some e-mails sometimes said some nasty things about skeptics, but there was no evidence of fraud. Even ‘Hide the decline’, set to music by climate deniers, turned out to be an innocent comment in the context in which it was written.
Climategate, coupled with a few errors in some of the reports, led to an independent investigation into the IPCC’s proceedings. The secretariat had reacted clumsily and reluctantly to figures that were clearly wrong.
5 Why are new IPCC reports still appearing, surely it is clear that climate change exists?
In the first IPCC report, published in 1990, the climate scientists wrote that the average temperature on Earth was rising, but there was still great uncertainty about the role of humans in this. When the second report appeared in 1996, the evidence seemed to point to “an observable human influence on the global climate.” That clarity only grew in the three reports that followed. In 2001 it was said ‘probably’ (66 percent sure) that the recent warming is the result of human activity, six years later it was called ‘very likely’ (90 percent sure).
The models get more details. A better estimate can be made of when the climate system can tip over
In fact, the 2014 report said it was “extremely likely” (95 percent certain) that humans are causing the current climate change. Dutch climate scientist Leo Meyer, one of the authors of the synthesis report that appeared in November of that year, summed up the conclusions in an interview. NRC at the time as follows: “The influence of humans on climate change is crystal clear. The consequences are becoming more visible worldwide. The prognosis for this is increasingly serious. And there is still an opportunity to limit the risks. But the longer we wait, the more expensive it quickly becomes.”
The new report may not be able to get over that so easily. But in the meantime, knowledge about climate change is growing rapidly. Studies are emerging into the relationship between climate change and weather-related events such as the recent heat wave in western Canada. The climate models that predict what can happen are given more detail, and a better estimate can be made of the moment at which climate systems can tilt. All that added knowledge should keep the policymakers on their toes.
An earlier version of this article stated that the secretariat of the IPCC is located in Bonn, which must be Geneva. The office of the UNFCCC is located in Bonn.