As we hear that China’s emissions from power plants are due to rise 60% by 2017, that Australia is proclaimed world champion polluter and that New Zealand’s Southern Alps have lost about 5.8 cubic kilometres, or almost 11 per cent, of ice in the past 20 years, the IPCC has released its Fourth Assessment Synthesis Report on climate change.
Words like “unequivocal”, “catastrophic”, “abrupt and irreversible” have featured in press coverage. Here are some quotes:
“These scenes are as frightening as a science fiction movie … but they are even more terrifying because they are real,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
He also nominated Climate change as the “defining challenge of our age.”
“We need a new ethic by which every human being realises the importance of the challenge we are facing and starts to take action through changes in lifestyle and attitude.” IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri.
“Climate change poses an urgent challenge that threatens the environment but also international peace and security, prosperity and development.” British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.
“My view is that there’s a serious challenge … my view also is that the world is not coming to an end tomorrow.” Australian Prime Minister, John Howard.
The Oz ran an article on the front page Rudd vow to take charge on warming highlighting that Rudd will personally lead the delegation to the UN conference in Bali next month.
It also ran an AAP article Libs at war over Kyoto where:
NSW opposition energy spokesman Peter Debnam … contradicted Coalition climate policy, saying Australia should have signed the Kyoto protocol long ago.
Debnam also referred to clean coal as an oxymoron.
I must confess that I wasn’t expecting much from the Synthesis Report. It merely represents a synthesis of the three working party reports issued this year. My understanding is that the cutoff point in considering scientific documents was December 2005. (I couldn’t check this because their server was down.) So the Stern Review, Monbiot’s book Heat and Mark Lynas’ Six Degrees all took account of more recent findings. More recently still there have been several important papers that tend to put a new complexion on things. All of these have been in the direction of requiring more urgency.
[Barrie Pittock from a link below says that research only up to the middle of 2006 was considered, which makes it comparable to Monbiot’s book but a few months earlier than Stern and Lynas. My basic point remains.]
1. Emissions are growing this century faster than the most pessimistic IPCC scenario.
2. In the Arctic the summer minimum ice coverage, which has been trending down since satellite observations began in 1979, has fallen out of bed in 2007.
3. Ice shelves in the Antarctic Peninsula are melting at an alarming rate.
4. Stefan Rahmsdorf estimates that as a result, and contra the IPCC, the sea level is likely to rise 0.5 to 1.4 meters by 2100. Hansen and others believe that multiple feedbacks “could yield [a] sea level rise of several metres per century with [an] eventual rise of tens of metres.”
5. Recent work suggests that the capacity for land and oceanic carbon sinks to absorb carbon from the atmosphere is diminishing.
6. We are now 0.8C warmer than a century ago. When we progress above 1C the issue of release of large quantities of methane from methane clathrates in the ocean comes into play.
Issues such as the rapid growth of emissions, the astonishing melting of Arctic ice in summer 2007, the possibility of faster sea level rise and the failure of carbon sinks were picked up by the writers of the Summary for Policy Makers (a large pdf) which is what was released.
This is just as well because of all the thousands of pages of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, these 23 pages are the most likely to be read by politicians and other policy makers. Still the IPCC SPM and Pearman for that matter do not in my opinion fully address the implications. Unfortunately this will have to be left to a subsequent post.
Tim Lambert has another post telling us that the US tried to water down the text objecting to the term “irreversible. After all melted ice can freeze over again. Surely they were not saying, as Tim suggests, that species extinction can be reversed be the evolution of replacement species. I would have thought that the endorsement of evolution was a step too far!
The Australian Science Media Centre has a roundup of comments from Australian scientists.
Perhaps the most severe warning a comes from Barry Brook, director of the Research Institute for Climate Change and Sustainability at the University of Adelaide, who said the report was “science policy at its most compelling, with our very future at stake”.
He said that, under the most stringent mitigation scenario proposed, there was a high confidence that a slew of “catastrophic impacts” would unfold. These included the loss of 30 per cent of species, major coastal flooding, most corals bleached and significant global water stress.
“The fossil-fuel intensive business-as-usual scenario runs off the chart, with a disturbingly plausible risk of up to 6.8C-8.6C warming – truly ‘game over’ for humanity and most other life on this planet,” he said.
But he also had good news:
“The costs involved in moving fast to address the emissions problem are incredibly small, or perhaps even beneficial overall, and that’s before we count the social and environmental cost of not taking action.”