IPCC Fourth Assessment Synthesis Report

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.]

Some (but not all) of these recent issues were picked up by Graeme Pearman in a report for the Climate Institute (pdf). Pearman tells us, in brief:

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.

Elsewhere, the most accessible posts I have seen are Tim Hollo at Greensblog and Tim Lambert at Deltoid. Quiggin picks it up in in a brief links post followed by a vigorous discussion thread.

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.”

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Posted in environment, federal election '07
6 comments on “IPCC Fourth Assessment Synthesis Report
  1. Bruce says:

    Anyone who believes the Coalition is starting to accept climate change should read this:
    Experts ignored in climate funding
    http://www.smh.com.au/text/articles/2007/11/15/1194766869649.html

    That’s $50 million misdirected to hamper Australia’s research into the impact of climate change on Australia and how we could adapt, which was the purpose of the research.

    This government is doing absolutely everything it can to sabortage the climate of this planet and our future with it.

  2. pleasecroak says:

    I give IPCC all the credit in the world for at least making fence sitters take notice. Every environmental cause should have such a mechanism for churning out science to overcome and overwhelm the skeptics. I noticed that this past weekend the biodiversity camp is getting closer to its own version of IPCC, only they call it IMoSEB. I’ve summarized the report in my frog blog, and the link to the report is in there, too: http://frogmatters.wordpress.com/2007/11/20/can-this-acronym-do-for-biodiversity-what-ipcc-has-done-for-global-warming/

  3. bahnischba says:

    I’ve added in the post that according to Barrie Pittock, who should know, the most recent research considered by the IPCC was mid-2006.

    I should have pointed out that the best stabilisation option presented in the report is to limit CO2e emissions to 450-490. (At present we are at about 455 although this becomes the equivalent of 375 when all “anthropogenic forcing agents”, meaning including the dimming effect of aerosols, are taken into account.)

    Such a stabilisation path requires emissions to peak before 2015 and reductions of 50-85% by 2050. This should limit the global temperature rise to 2.0 – 2.4C relative to pre-industrial temperatures.

    The only problem with this is that the Greenland ice sheet will almost certainly break up, while here in Oz the Great Barrier reef will be pretty well stuffed, there will be significant drying of the south and south-east of the continent and the sea will continue to rise.

    It should be noted that ‘dangerous’ temperature rise is typically considered 2C, while James Hansen and his mates are now saying 1.7C.

    This is one example of how the IPCC, for all it’s good work, has not fully considered the implications of the science.

  4. Peterc says:

    Howard, Costello, Minchin, Vaile and the rest of the Liberal/National climate change skeptic (the whole lot, except maybe Turnbull) should be locked up for their pig ignorance and gross misinformation about climate change.

    Look at their recent leaflet and hearing Costello on ABC radio this morning in Melbourne:

    1. Low Emissions Technology Demonstration Fund
    Of the 500m allocated to it, 450m is going to coal research and development, not renewable energy. This is corrupt.

    2. The “internatational agreement we need to include India and China”
    India and China have signed and ratified of the Kyoto Protocol, only Australia and the US have not. We therefore DO NOT have a seat at the table to negotiate a post-Kyoto (post 2012) international agreement. Howard’s aspirational voluntary targets are meaningless. This is tantamount to extreme negligence.

    3. Howard is spending 200m on Indonesian forests
    How much of this will actually protect forest? Not much I suspect. Meanwhile, 4 million tonnes (Tas) and 1 million tonnes (Vic/SE NSW) native forest (including old growth) is woochipped every year, releasing 1400 tonnes of CO2 per hectare. Howard et al are criminal hypocrits.

    Summary: Labor scores 2.5/10 (20% MRET, 2050 target), Liberals score 0/10 (they are doing nothing). Neither have policies that will stabilise emissions by 2015 then reduce them, which is what science indicates we have to acheive.

    Vote 1 Green or Democrat, 2 Labor everywhere. The Libs have GOT to go.

  5. bahnischba says:

    Peterc, I abroadly agree with you. The Climate Institute now have the ALP at 60% on their scorecard, whereas the Coalition is stuck on 30%.

    I thought the increase in the ALP score was on the back of the energy efficiency program they announced last week, but the site still says they have none.

    I think the ALP will follow the European line in general, whereas the other mob still have their head stuck in APEC dreams (at best).

  6. pleasecroak says:

    I perhaps was a littly too rosy in talking about that French summit on biodiversity that was going to ramp up an IPCC like group about what’s happening to plant and animal life. A grim story just came out about the French meeting about IMoSEB: http://frogmatters.wordpress.com/2007/11/22/biodiversitys-equivalent-to-ipcc-gets-grim-news-report/

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