The IPCC: A credit to science, but failing individuals

For many the United Nations (UN) climate change conference in Paris at the end of November this year is a make or break moment for human-induced climate change. Negotiations over a law-binding international treaty committing governments to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions have been taking place for over two decades now. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has also been in existence for over twenty years now and given the lack of international progress regarding climate change over that period, you would be forgiven for asking if the IPCC functioning effectively given the severity of the matter at hand? To assess this one needs to consider the history of the IPCC, and the methods it has adopted to convey its findings.

The IPCC was founded in 1988 at the request of UN member states. Its purpose is to produce reports on the scientific and socio-economic impacts of human-induced climate change. It also produces reports on options regarding mitigation and adaptation to climate change. The format of IPCC is a multi-government panel that is overseen by the United Nations. The panel does not conduct any research or monitoring of climate change itself, but produces all of its assessments using published literature. All contributions to the IPCC reports are voluntary meaning authors receive no payment from the UN or IPCC. The aim of this structure is to provide the most neutral, unbiased assessment of global climate change. It has not gone without criticism and controversy, but the structure of the IPCC is arguably one of the greatest examples of international cooperation of the modern era. Whilst this may be true, the severity and clarity of the assessments produced by the IPCC do not match the international response in relation to the issues at hand.

Following the release of its latest series of reports in 2014, the IPCC chair – Rajendra Pachauri – was quoted saying: “We have the means to limit climate change. The solutions are many and allow for continued human and economic growth. All we need is the will to change.” The final point in that statement eludes to the problem the IPCC is having with the findings of these recent reports. Despite 98% of climate scientists agreeing that human activities are warming the planet, a figure that is virtually unheard of for such a major scientific issue, national governments and a large percentage of the general public are unmoved by the issues of climate change. In its most recent set of reports, the panel’s assessment of climate change is clear:

“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal and human influence on the climate system is clear. Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system and limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emission.”

The assessment for mitigation and adaptation is even more severe: Failure to effectively combat climate change will inflict “severe, widespread and irreversible impacts” and the risk of severe heat waves, droughts, other extreme weather events, food shortages and violent conflicts will all continue to increase from further climate change. It is a baffling scenario, but one that is unfortunately too common in science communication and highlights some flaws in the structure of the IPCC.

First let us consider the lack of response from national governments, particularly considering they requested the creation of the IPCC in the first place. The agendas of national governments differ from that of bodies such as the European Union (EU) and UN. National governments are far more accountable for the economic growth and standard of living in their respected countries than bodies such as the UN or EU. Consequently many national governments prioritise economic growth over environmental issues, and will often view the environment as an economic resource. As a result the implementation of effective environmental legislation is extremely unlikely at the expense of economic growth. This is particularly applicable given the recent global recession that resulted in economic growth becoming the top priority for national governments.

Whilst the differing agendas of the various types of governing bodies play a large role in the lack of action on climate change, arguably the bigger issue is public engagement. This is an issue that all areas of complex science fall foul of periodically, and climate change is arguably the most severe example of this. Firstly the IPCC reports are long documents – sometimes 1500 pages in length – and are written in very high scientific detail. For someone who is not particularly interested in science or the climate, delving into such a report is neither appealing nor rewarding. More importantly however, the IPCC report does not produce ways for people to combat climate change in their everyday lives, it produces guidelines for governments. The very fact the reports are produced by, and made for governments means they are often useful or relevant to the general public. Couple this with the lack of direct impact of climate change on peoples lives, particularly in the western world, and it is no surprise that large sections of the general public pay no attention to climate change. Worse still the controversy surrounding the issue has a tendency to alienate even more people, making the issue toxic and unsavoury.

It is perhaps unfair to blame these failings entirely on the IPCC, after all the reason it adopted its current structure was in order to be as impartial and scientifically credible as possible. It has produced some very good content and information that almost anyone can understand, such as the graphs below:


A comparison of simulated and observed climate change in the atmosphere and oceans. Crucially the observed data follows the trend of models that use both human and natural causes of climate change, suggesting that human-induced climate change is happening and in our lifetimes. (Sourced from Page 22 of the IPCC Physical Science Basis – Summary for Policymakers)
A comparison of simulated and observed climate change in the atmosphere and oceans. Crucially the observed data follows the trend of models that use both human and natural causes of climate change, suggesting that human-induced climate change is happening and in our lifetimes. (Sourced from Page 22 of the IPCC Physical Science Basis – Summary for Policymakers)

The graphs show very simply and clearly that human caused climate change is happening and it is happening now. However too much of the IPCC content is alienating and hollow. Yes it will become less hollow if an international agreement on a treaty is reached in Paris this winter, but unless the assessments produced are translated for all, and not just scientists or politicians, climate change will struggle to ever seriously concern people in the developed world. For any complex science, public engagement is extremely difficult; that is no new issue. For climate change, the issue lacks any personal element to it. It does not appear applicable to the majority of individuals in the developed world in their day-to-day lives, and even if it was, it is notoriously difficult to understand. On top of this, no constructive advice is given to individuals on how to help tackle the problem. Perhaps this is where the IPCC is going wrong? It is not translating the vast noise of climate science into personal, understandable messages for individuals. Governments are authorities and legislate. It is individuals who elect and shape those governments.

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Chris Holdsworth 8 Articles
My writing interests spawn from my studies in Earth Sciences. The natural world fascinates and amazes me, but engaging and involving others in science is my greatest passion because of the ever-growing need for interest and understanding of the natural world.

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