The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

The IPCC: Summarizing the Summaries

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This is the third post in a four-part series on the current report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The first post introduced the IPCC and the overall structure and purpose of its report. The second post described the first installment of the IPCC’s report. This post described the two other installments that have been released to date. The fourth post will discuss the critical reaction to the report.

The IPCC is currently releasing its fifth Assessment Report in four installments over the course of just over a year. The first three installments are the reports of the IPCC’s three Working Groups, while the fourth is a final Synthesis Report. So far, the first three installments are out. No immediate release date has been announced for the fourth installment, though it will be sometime before this coming November. All these documents are publicly accessible, although they are also very large and very dry. The Summary for Policymakers for each Working Group’s Report is also available online for free. These summaries are very dry, but they are short enough to get through in an hour or so of reading, and most technical terms are explained.

Finding these downloads, or finding anything else relating to the IPCC’s report, is harder than it should be, though.

There’s no conspiracy, it’s just that nothing on the Internet is ever deleted and most of it is never updated. A search for IPCC AR5 WGIII (the rather awkward name of the third installment) therefore turns up articles on “recently” leaked drafts and anticipated publication dates, plus plenty of third-party commentary, but nothing that obviously includes the published report itself. Even the IPCC website still contains language that anticipates the release of the report and features download buttons for approved drafts of the Summary for Policy Makers. That the report has already been released is nowhere made clear, except that I remember when its release made the news last week. Probably, the IPCC actually has announced its release somewhere, but for whatever reason the webpage with the announcement has a much lower search engine ranking at present.

The Summary for the Second Working Group’s Report is much easier to find, but a search still yields a clutter of months-old announcements anticipating its arrival.

Let’s make this simple; here is a link to the Summary for Policymakers of the Second Working Group’s Report  and here is a link to the Summary of the Third Working Group’s Report. Go read them, if you want. They are each about 35 pages long, and then you will know what all the fuss and fevered commentary is about. In case you do not want to read them right now, or in case knowing what they are about ahead of time makes them easier to read, here is a brief summary of both summaries.

As with the first installment’s Summary for Policy Makers, the authors of these documents use language very deliberately, in ways that are sometimes slightly different from common usage. They explain their terms at the beginning. They also carefully explain how they gathered information, how they came to their conclusions, and which of their conclusions are basically certainties and which are still provisional. Without all this definition and context, quotes from the text might be misleading in places. With all that definition and context, the reports do seem a lot more reliable than critics on all ends of the political spectra suggest.

So, the Second Working Group reported on the impacts of climate change and on how well humans and the rest of the world can cope with these impacts. It is divided into three main segments: how things are now; what our vulnerabilities will be going forward; and what we can do to deal with these future risks.

So far, according to the report, climate change is mostly influencing ecological processes and has caused a few known extinction already. Climate change has also had some impacts on human societies, although it is difficult to determine how big those impacts are, because there are a lot of factors operating at once. Most of those impacts fall on the poor or otherwise disenfranchised, and most are negative. There are a few positive impacts, but whether the balance is positive for anybody is not clear. Generally climate change and other human problems (war, bigotry, etc.) make each other worse. A lot of countries are starting to adapt to climate change, or at least talk about doing so, but generally we are not ready and are vulnerable.

Assessing our risks going forward requires making some decisions about our values–what is important enough that the possibility of loosing it constitutes a high risk? The authors of the report outline the decisions they have made. While others are free to disagree with their decisions, because they have published what their decisions are, readers can use the report as a resource even if their values are different.

What the authors have to say is, in a word, scary. They do raise the real possibility of high emissions scenarios triggering sudden, irreversible changes due to the operation of certain feedback loops. The language is dry and a reader unfamiliar with these issues could easily miss the important paragraph, but basically the IPCC agrees that for some emission scenarios, the world as we know it could suddenly collapse.

That being said, their prediction of our future risks is nuanced and measured. Instead of predicting catastrophe across the board, the Second Working Group predicts various health problems, environmental problems, and economic problems, some of them sure and others uncertain, some slow and mild for the next couple of decades, others possibly severe.

The third section discusses only how we might better cope with climate change, not with how we might stop making climate change worse. Stopping our assault on the climate, which the report calls mitigation, is the subject of the Third Working Group’s Report.

The Third Working Group’s Report addresses what mitigation means, what opportunities for mitigation exist in various sectors (such as transportation and industry), and what the potential costs and benefits of various mitigation scenarios are. The authors of the report say that it is still possible to keep global temperature rise under 2 degrees C., but that doing so will become increasingly difficult the longer we wait before making serious changes. That we have not yet made serious changes in clear; while the authors note that a lot of mitigation policies and efforts exist, total greenhouse gas emissions are still going up.  Almost half of the total human production of greenhouse gasses since the Industrial Revolution began has been in the last 40 years alone.

The report addresses a lot of interesting points: that social justice and climate change policy are necessarily interrelated; that climate change mitigation could carry a lot of social and economic benefits; and that cost-benefit analysis have to take worst-case scenarios into account even if those scenarios are not likely to happen. If it has a weakness, it is the report’s definition of mitigation as an “intervention” by humans, phrasing that implies that global warming isn’t itself a human intervention already.

But perhaps the most important part is a single sentence:

“Effective mitigation will not be achieved if individual agents advance their own interests independently”

Translation? We’re going to fail unless we learn to help each other.



Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

One thought on “The IPCC: Summarizing the Summaries

  1. Pingback: The Responses to the IPCC | The Climate Emergency

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