IPCC: separating fact from fright

Today’s alarmist claims about the planet ‘spinning into a troubling void’ are not backed up by the findings of the latest IPCC report.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the final part of its Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) at the weekend, bringing together material from the reports of three working groups published over the past year into one ‘synthesis report’ (1). But despite the alarmist words of senior UN and IPCC officials, the report does not make the case that a climate timebomb is about to explode. We should not allow a vision of climate catastrophe – aka ‘The Science’ – to railroad society into policy decisions that might leave humanity worse off.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, speaking at the launch of the new report in Valencia, Spain on Sunday, described climate change as ‘the defining challenge of our age’, though stressing that ‘concerted and sustained action now can still avoid some of the most catastrophic scenarios’ (2). In an earlier statement in September this year, Ban told a high-level climate change meeting in New York: ‘Today, the time for doubt has passed. The IPCC has unequivocally affirmed the warming of our climate system, and linked it directly to human activity. The scientists have very clearly outlined the severity of the problem. Their message is quite simple: we know enough to act; if we do not act now the impact of climate change will be devastating; and we have affordable measures and technologies to begin addressing the problem right now. What we do not have is time. The time for action is now.’ (3)

In other words, there is no longer room for doubt and we need to start negotiations to replace the Kyoto treaty with a new, emissions-cutting treaty that includes both developing and developed countries in its remit. But before we get bounced into this position, it is worth sounding a few notes of caution.

The report doesn’t match the alarmism

The headlines from the new report, as presented by IPCC chairman Rajendra K Pachauri, include: warming of the climate system is unequivocally happening, with increasing global air and ocean temperatures; rising global average sea level; reductions of snow and ice; greater frequency of extreme events like flood-inducing rain and droughts; increased risk of species extinction; increased problems of water supply, declining food production and disease in many parts of the world.

However, behind the more alarmist statements made in press conferences, the actual IPCC working group reports – certainly as regards the physical basis for climate change – have at least engaged to some extent with alternative explanations and forecasts for warming, and have couched their assessments more carefully and cautiously than either the public pronouncements of IPCC officials or popular discussion of climate change would suggest.

So, for example, while the headlines would suggest that the Greenland ice sheet is about to melt, catastrophically resulting in sea level rises of seven metres, the report makes clear that this process would take millennia. The report actually suggests that sea level will rise over the next century by 18-59 centimetres. Meanwhile, the report says: ‘Current global model studies project that the Antarctic ice sheet will remain too cold for widespread surface melting and gain mass due to increased snowfall.’ In other words, unless great chunks fall off the edge of the South Pole’s ice sheet, the mass of ice is likely to get bigger. While the overall rise in sea levels could still be damaging to very low-lying coastal areas, there will be no need to build an ark any time soon.

You would never get this more balanced impression from the mainstream media, however. For example, the UK Independent on Sunday ran the headline: ‘A world dying, but can we unite to save it?’ A recent environmentalist survival guidebook claimed that planet Earth is ‘speeding into a troubling void’. Such melodramatic outbursts have been widespread in the British and European media over the past couple of days. Television documentaries, commentators and politicians seem to be suggesting that civilisation itself is under threat, as they hint that we are heading for a future where a few hardy survivors will inhabit a scorched earth devoid of other animals or plant life, like something out of Mad Max. The truth is very different.

A damaging distraction

What the IPCC reports actually talk about are the more prosaic problems of water supply, agricultural production, disease, extreme weather events and flooding: all of these are already-existing problems, and all of them are potentially resolvable through relatively simple societal and technological developments.

Yet rather than discussing the need for more development, and a concerted global strategy to tackle social problems as they exist right now – not just in 100 years time – all of the attention and energy of political leaders is being focused on how we can stop producing so much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Any really serious attempt to cut greenhouse gas emissions – demands for a 50, 60 and even 90 per cent cut are being bandied around – would require a dramatic cut in travel and goods distribution, energy production and construction (because cement production is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions), or some other radical changes in the way that we do these things.

To attempt to force through emission cuts without having in place new, low-carbon technologies and the social infrastructure required to employ them would mean not simply cutting economic growth, but also downsizing developed economies and ditching any attempt to modernise and develop poor countries. On the basis that climate change would be detrimental to the welfare of some people, the suggestion is to impoverish everyone – to be on the safe side. That is simply irrational, and inhumane: it would leave the world’s poor as they are, while making Westerners poorer, too.

Science vs ‘The Science’

In truth, when global leaders suggest that we must make swingeing emissions cuts, they almost certainly do so in bad faith. Such cuts are not desirable or achievable at present. However, the current concern about the environment provides leaders with a moral mission through which they can prop up political life. In an era when There is No Alternative to the free market, and the future is usually envisaged as a bleaker version of the present, politics – perhaps even society itself – appears to have no purpose. Trying to avoid global catastrophe seems the nearest thing to a big idea that can bring us all together, even if the underlying message – ‘humans are screwing up the planet’ – is a misanthropic one.

Hence the heat and bitterness with which IPCC reports are dissected and discussed. Because if the problem seems anything less than urgent, then there’s the possibility that it will be ignored by the mass of the population, or, more likely, carefully compared to other problems to see which are the most pressing. Thus, the IPCC process is a thoroughly politicised one, and it has been been since day one, as Tony Gilland has before noted on spiked (see Digging up the roots of the IPCC). The widely publicised policy documents are the result of scientific reviews being scrutinised by a rag-tag of political appointees and campaigners to produce a statement that suits a variety of agendas. Ironically, after years in which the IPCC reports have been accused of being hijacked by greens, green campaigners are now arguing that the reports are being watered down for political ends.

The reason the IPCC matters so much in public debate is not because it provides us with a summary of current climate science (which the workgroup reports do attempt to do, for better or worse), but because it provides leaders, commentators and activists with something else entirely: ‘The Science.’ This product may look like a set of scientific statements, but is in many ways the exact opposite of science. ‘The Science’ is ‘unequivocal’ rather than sceptical and cautious in its conclusions; ‘The Science’ is built on an artificial consensus rather than on a real battle of competing ideas that admits the possibility that current thinking could be completely wrong; ‘The Science’ very strongly implies a particular direction for policy (greenhouse gas emission reductions) which is apparently above politics, rather than merely informing a political debate about how we take society forward on the basis of human need and desire.

Armed with ‘The Science’, campaigners and politicians demand all sorts of sacrifices based on one of the few remaining sources of authority that still cuts any ice with the majority of the population. Perversely, the very success of science in improving our lives is being latched on to as a means of potentially making our lives worse in the future.

The way forward

No doubt some scientists are honestly trying to get to grips with an enormously complex system: the world’s climate. And as a precautionary response to climate change, we might quite reasonably decide that efforts should be made to replace some current technologies – for example, those based on fossil fuels – with low-carbon alternatives. This would be a path that we might well choose to take even if climate change were not an issue, since viable low-carbon technologies could increase energy security and reduce other forms of pollution. We could also introduce adaptive measures now – from better flood defences to more secure forms of water supply in both developed and developing countries – that would be beneficial regardless of whether or not climate change proves to be extreme.

This kind of thing has been illustrated in Bangladesh in recent days. In 1991, a tropical cyclone brought destruction and flooding that killed about 130,000 people. Since then, the government of Bangladesh has created cyclone shelters and an early warning system. Last week’s cyclone killed at least 2,000 people, and the final death toll may exceed a monumentally tragic 10,000. Yet the recent storm was, if anything, stronger than the one in 1991. If communications and infrastructure could be improved further, it is possible that widespread loss of life caused by storms in Bangladesh could become a thing of the past. It would be tragic indeed, and ironic, if we let scare stories about possible future storms distract us from improving people’s living standards in Bangladesh and elsewhere right now.

While we should respect science and development, we should have little respect for ‘The Science’. If the more alarmist statements of the past few days are to be believed, we should all accept that we must be less well-off because our consumption would hurt people like those in Bangladesh. This scientifically suspect moral blackmail to further the aims of politicians and campaigners is – unequivocally – a change for the worse.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons interviewed an Australian academic who believes the IPCC goes looking for bad news. Woudhuysen and Kaplinsky suggested that the IPCC’s fourth report was a man-made morality tale and warned against reliance on computer models. John Brignell argued that anything today could be blamed on climate change. Tony Gilland revealed the political roots of the IPCC. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

(1) Summary for Policymakers of the Synthesis Report of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, IPCC

(2) Ban Ki-moon urges climate change breakthrough in Bali after dire report released, United Nations, 17 November 2007

(3) Climate change threatens investment in Millennium Goals, UN Secretary-General, 24 September 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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