Why the IPCC Report Has To Go

Sharon December 13th, 2008

Are you sleeping too well?  Do you find yourself suffering from symptoms of happiness, a sense of security and contentment that the future will be good?  Well, I’ve got the medicine for that condition: http://www.thestar.com/News/article/552439

“There was a line in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s fourth report that didn’t get the attention it deserved:

‘Dynamic processes related to ice flow not included in present models but suggested by recent observations could increase the vulnerability of the ice sheets to warming, increasing future sea-level rise.’

The media picked up on the projected rise in sea levels of 18 to 59 centimetres by the end of the century, but they didn’t question the models’ limitations.

Many climatologists fear the gradual melting of ice will be replaced by ice break-up, causing a sudden huge rise in sea level. Such a scenario increases the necessity of rescuing our climate.”

Besides giving us all another reason to spend our time clutching our teddy bears and sucking our thumbs, to me this is the final straw.  Right now, one of the great difficulties we face when addressing climate change is simply this – we’re not scared enough.  Climate change commentators regularly observe this – generally speaking, the public gets terrified about something (avian flu, terrorism, etc…) and the experts are generally more moderate, particulary scientific experts.  They’ve been taught to moderate their statements, been taught to include plenty of caveats.  This is not the case in the subject of climate research – those who know most about it are far more frightened than the average American.  They are worried about a world in which our ability to grow food, to live where we have been living, to sustain our population is radically undercut by climate change.

Even before the IPCC report came out, we knew that it suffered from a combination of scientific reticence, excessive consensus building  and political manipulation by governments who didn’t want to be pushed too hard.  And within months or weeks of its release, we knew that the IPCC report had not just understated what *might* happen sometime in the future – it had wildly understated what had happened already.  For example, its emission projections were based on older data – emissions concentration in the early 21st century were dramatically higher than anticipated.  Within months, we saw that the end of Arctic ice might come in 5-10 years, rather than the 100 years projected in the report.  This alone should have been enough to shift the public discussion of climate change – to say that the IPCC report cannot operate as the primary public account of what is needed to address climate change.  Unfortunately, and despite the heroic efforts of people like James Hansen, Joseph Romm, George Monbiot, and the people at Climate Equity, the IPCC report has continued to dominate and misshape discussion of climate efforts.

I do not mean to criticize the IPCC scientists as a group or personally.  I agree that their own efforts have been remarkable. Many of them are also fighting the battle to help people understand exactly what the real situation of our climate is.  But it is not enough – the IPCC report operates a text with Biblical weight – all the rest, as they say, is commentary.  And as long as they IPCC report retains its power, those who do not wish to act, or those whose primary concern is not preserving a really inhabitable planet for the future, will be able to point to the IPCC narrative and say “but your own account of things says that things are not that urgent.”  Right now, this is a strategy being used by conservatives in the US who have been forced to believe in climate change, but who still want to put business first – and it is a strategy that will probably gain more, not less traction as the realities of our economic situation hit us harder.

The next IPCC report will not be released until 2013 – around the time we anticipate all the Arctic ice will be gone, and very close to the end of the narrow window of time that we have to perhaps – and at this point it is only perhaps – address climate change.   Right now, the talks in Poland are struggling – again, we are locked in a global game of chicken, with poor nations refusing to consider making cuts until rich ones do, and every nation terrified of the economic consequences of making moves that address even the IPCC account.

I do not think we will break this impasse while the IPCC report offers a comforting, even if recognizably false narrative in which to leave one’s faith.  As long as the largest portion of the population believes we have until 2050, that sea level rises will not be a problem in our grandkids’ lifetimes and a host of other misconceptions, and can find a document of authority to back them up, they will not be afraid enough. 

Ideally, the IPCC participants themselves would speak out – and some of them, to their enormous credit have done so.  But we need a concerted narrative pointing towards the real information – the idea, for example, that an appropriate target must be 350 ppm, rather than the 450 or 550 ppm numbers that are more politically expedient, but less real.  And we need to say over and over again – the IPCC was wrong.  It understated things.  Our metrics must be based on cutting edge knowledge, and cannot be undercut by scientific reticence.

Who knows, maybe the IPCC should hire me – I’m no scientist, but those they have – what they need is the Stephen King of climate change narration ;-) .  There is no way that an IPCC report written by me would describe the danger of sudden sea ice break-off causing rapid sea level rise in terms that no would notice, right ;-) ?


12 Responses to “Why the IPCC Report Has To Go”

  1. Rosaon 13 Dec 2008 at 11:29 am

    The thing that surprises me is that people aren’t more worried about the negative ocean ecosystem news I’ve been seeing – the drop in phytoplankton, dying mussels in the Atlantic, the loss of coral reefs…

    So much of the human world is dependent on fish, shellfish, and sea vegetables, I don’t get why this isn’t making more press.

  2. Devin Quinceon 13 Dec 2008 at 11:33 am

    I agree it bugs me to no end that the Govt. refuses to be honest with its people on the peak oil/climate change issue. I just hope Obama realizes what he needs to do and just does it. The days of the rose colored glasses are over!

  3. Consumeron 13 Dec 2008 at 12:15 pm

    There are some real ecological catastrophes taking place at the moment (deforestation, desertification, Asian brown cloud) and some real humanitarian ones (Zimbabwe, Sudan).

    I think that trying to scare people with Sea Level Rise is just misplaced. The AGW bigwigs seem to say that we should expect 1M SLR by 2100. This is not good, but compared to FF depletion, deforestation and other Overshoot related problems, it is pretty insignificant. Even the most wild-eyed doomers are talking about 2M of SLR.

    All of these cities where these tens of millions of people live were built up to that capacity in the last 100 years, and given a hundred years notice, people can move to higher ground.

    The world has lots of pressing problems, but I just don’t see SLR as one of them. Of course, I hope we do move quickly to do something about it, as the solutions to prevent it would also help solve these other problems.

    I guess the point is, that I don’t think telling people that the seas will be three feet higher in 100 years is the best motivator. Telling them that there may not be enough food in 20 years is a lot better, IMO.

  4. Shambaon 13 Dec 2008 at 2:41 pm

    I think that, at least since the past 6 months, we just have too much to be very afraid of to have any more capacity to take in something else we should be very afriad of! (sigh*) and the idea that’s it–the climate change–is actually made by our own actions of what we think is the good life is another layer of guilt/fear/blame.
    It’s like if we–human beings are so dumb, greedy/evil what are we here for?

    the last 4 months have really intensified fears that I already knew about before our financial crisis and it’s kind of overwhelming some days.

    Thanks for the info, as alway, Sharon .


  5. dooberheimon 14 Dec 2008 at 5:46 am

    Terrible thing is, it doesn’t matter how scared people get. To really do something about this, everyone in the First World has to give up their car, air travel, air conditioning, live in smaller houses with only maybe a refrigerator and some lights. It would turn the economy of the US into the economy of Angola, and no one’s going to do that.

    So it will happen anyway. Better to prepare for it than to try to stop it – we won’t.


  6. Greenpaon 14 Dec 2008 at 9:34 am

    “Our metrics must be based on cutting edge knowledge, and cannot be undercut by scientific reticence.”

    As somebody who has helped write international climate statements, I can assure you, science has nothing to do with what comes out in print. It’s politics.

    In the case of the current IPCC report- the primary entity that had to be placated by temporizing language was- the USA. The Bush folks simply would not agree to the very plain language that the rest of the world (with very few exceptions) wanted. I’m not pulling that out of a hat- that’s the word inside the scientific community.

    I think we have some reason to hope the next one will speak more clearly. But don’t underestimate the effort that went into the last one- it was huge- and has had a good incremental push effect. Prepping for the more difficult statements to come.

    One thing to keep in mind- the fact that the whole situation is beyond urgent does not mean the world is capable of sensible rapid response. It’s just going to take time to reverse that iceberg, no matter what.

  7. Studenton 14 Dec 2008 at 10:48 am

    Check out The Oil Drum thread on this today:


  8. Simply.Belindaon 15 Dec 2008 at 5:06 am

    Hi Sharon,

    I have to say I actually find this topic really interesting because it is one I have been grappling with for a while.

    I can only speak about what I see in the population over here in Australia rather than in the US as that is what I see but I actually don’t see a fundamental lack of fear… I see a fundamental lack of hope. The problem is that the climate change communicators, not the scientists they are simply formulating theories and backing them up with data, but the people who form groups to communicate with the community latched onto fear as the thing they needed to instil in the populace to galvanise action.

    Problem is I believe they ignored the fact that by scaring the wits out of the community the herd would effectively left only two options from a psychological point of view. A small few outliers within the community would be galvanised into action… regularly lapsing into despair as they get overwhelmed by the enormity of the task of stimulating change within a community that has a pathological need to ignore the reality around them because they can’t see a positive vision for the future. To that section of the community there is not path so there is no future, there is no future so nothing that I do now will either positively or negatively impact on the future, “LETS PAAAARTTTAY”. (rather simplified but I am sure you get my drift)

    Very few are providing more than token effort steps to give people back their power to change the course of events so people are sitting back thinking “I can’t personally change this to scary and too big, the government will have to fix it”. Part of me sees a sequence of events where someone wakes up and starts questioning “what can I do?” to be handed a 10 dot point group of ideas with things at the level of “change your light bulbs”… a thought sequence occurs within any sane human being at that point along the lines of “that isn’t going to fix a problem this big” at which point most of them put down the paper, forget they ever asked the question and get on with the more pressing problems in their life that they feel they have the power to change the outcome of.

    By using fear I truly believe we are dis-empowering the community and creating a deer in the headlights scenario.

    One of the reasons that I read your blog is that you are doing your best to show us a path…. point out that we have power/skills/ability to learn and change, that the future is worth fighting for because the items of basic human richness (community, family, love and fellowship/friendship) are the things worth fighting for, not preservation of the culture that has destroyed and diluted many of these things. More importantly you generally very clearly communicate that an uncertain and difficult future doesn’t innately loose richness in that sense, being possessions poor and happy is most definitely and option, maybe not a prefered option but an option never the less.

    Personally I find initiatives like Riot for Austerity are great as they don’t stop at the token 10 options you get on your average green pamphlet, it might start there but it most definitely points out that it isn’t where your personal influence and therefore responsibility ends.

    Kind Regards

  9. Simply.Belindaon 15 Dec 2008 at 5:09 am

    By almost exclusively using fear I truly believe……

  10. Steven Earl Salmonyon 16 Dec 2008 at 7:46 am

    On climate change obstructionism at Poznan…….

    This response is so predictable, so duplicitous, so pathetic, so immoral, so dunderheaded.

    Too many current leaders appear to be saying that the environmental ’strategy’ of delay and denial is as necessary and justifiable today as invading Iraq was in 2003.

    Only a tale told by an idiot could match the one we are seeing played out on the world’s stage in this first decade of Century XXI.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001

  11. kdl 32 bbon 17 Dec 2009 at 11:29 pm

    Very helpful keep going

  12. kdl 32on 18 Dec 2009 at 6:50 am

    Your blog give me helpful info thanks

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