This is the first of a series on the 5th report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is currently being released in several installments.
If you follow climate change-related news, you have probably encountered several stories over the past year on the release of the IPCC’s latest report. Certain corners of the internet have lit up of late with commentary both for and against. Predictably, some people insist the report is far too conservative while others label it alarmist.
But if you want to find out what the report is, or even what the IPCC is, you might have to go digging. There is not much in the way of simple, plain-language overview out there. So, in the name of being the change we want to see in the world, I offer the following.
“IPCC” stands for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It was founded in 1988, by two bodies within the United Nations, World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), in order to prepare a report for the General Assembly that could be used as a resource for international discussion of climate change.
The IPCC conducts no research of its own. Instead, its members collect and summarize the existing body of scholarship on the subject. A system of stringent rules require that the work of the IPCC be transparent, consensus-based, and apolitical. The idea is that its reports are a resource for creating policy, but do not dictate or suggest policy directly.
Those who serve on the IPCC are unpaid, uncompensated, for their work.
The first report was released in 1990. The current one being released is Assessment Report 5 (AR5). These reports have been very cautious, initially saying only that humans could be causing climate change or were likely causing climate change, even long after many individual researchers were sure. With AR5, the IPCC is finally sure; the phrase they used is “very likely,” but that’s only because scientists don’t like to make unqualified statements, ever. Each report reflects a fairly cautious version of scientific consensus, and as new information has come in over the years, the picture has gotten clearer.
Besides the Assessment Reports, the IPCC also produces other documents. Most of its publications are available publicly, through bookstores and other outlets. These things are not brief. Summaries of the reports are sometimes available for free online.
The IPCC consists of three Working Groups, a Task Force, several oversight bodies, plus other, short term groups that may be created to deal with specific issues. The Task Force works to facilitate international monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions. The three Working Groups create the Assessment Reports, with each group completing its own separate segment of the report.
AR5 consists of four installments, one for each Working Group, plus a Synthesis Report. Some of these are out already, while others are not. Since each installment is itself a report, written to stand alone, we’ve been in the confusing position of hearing that “the fifth IPCC report has just been released!” several times. Each such announcement has actually been either a new installment, a leaked draft, or a published summary.
The first installment, known by the awkward acronym, IPCC AR5 WG1 Report, was released on September, 27, 2013. The WG1 stands for the first Working Group, which covers physical science.
IPCC AR5 WG2 came out on March 28th, from the second Working Group, which covers the impacts of climate change and our ability to adapt to them.
The third installment, AR5 WG3, is due out later this month; its summary for policy makers is due out on the 13th. It will cover mitigation, or preventing climate change.
The fourth installment, the Synthesis Report, is due out sometime before November of this year.
As mentioned, the internet has exploded with commentary. Some people insist that the report is alarmist, presenting an inaccurately scary picture. Others insist that the report is not scary enough and is inaccurately mild in its warning. All the comments are interesting, and they keep coming as the reports keep coming out.
We have much to talk about.