The blind alley of impeccable climate science

Tension oozes from every tortured paragraph of the Special Report on Extreme Events and Disasters released on Friday in its shortened form – the Summary for Policymakers – by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

It’s not just that the IPCC is in defensive mode, fearful of another ambush by climate change skeptics who seized on a slip-up over melting Himalayan glaciers in its last showpiece publication.

There’s a deeper sense that this is a report that the UN’s scientific body on climate change hoped it would never write.

Its first summary of advice to national policymakers, dating back to 1990, barely mentions the risk of extreme events or disasters, such was the belief that repeated exhortation for urgent action on greenhouse gas emissions would be observed.

This new IPCC report marks the end of that presumed age of reason in international climate governance.

For those familiar with climate jargon, the full convoluted title encapsulates the failures of the last two decades : Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation.

Adaptation emerged as a policy response as it became plain that global warming can at best only be moderated. Now, the booming business of disaster risk management concedes the limits of adaptation. What happens when we can no longer manage the disaster risk?

Even the SREX acronym chosen for the new report sounds angry, as if inspired by a discordant clash between Shrek, the comic green ogre, and the raw force of nature in T-Rex.

The skeptics may be portrayed as dinosaurs but they have claimed a notable scalp in a revision of the scientists’ longstanding definition of climate change. New wording presented in the report ends the over-simplistic distinction between climate change attributable to human activities and climate variability attributable to natural causes.

The two cannot be disentangled so neatly, “reflecting progress in science,” according to the explanatory note.

Such sensitivity to criticism overlays a text which is already constrained by the established IPCC discipline of grading statements by their degree of uncertainty. Whilst temperature-related extremes are forecast with confidence, almost all rainfall and storm scenarios are qualified, for one reason or another.

For example, the lack of historic meteorological data for Africa prompts reticence on disaster risks for a region where guidance for policymakers is most needed. Unfortunately, toning down the language does not diminish the disaster risk. As the report explains: “assigning ‘low confidence’ for projections of a specific extreme neither implies nor excludes the possibility of changes in this extreme.”

Reinforcing the carapace around the IPCC process is understandable and wise. But such zealous caution offers comfort to those policymakers who prefer to turn a blind eye to the guiding principles of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage,” the Convention directs, “lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing (action).”

This precautionary principle is familiar in almost every aspect of our daily life; indeed the viability of insurance cover would otherwise collapse. In its resolute preference for the ostrich principle, the international response to global warming may cut itself loose from insurance, a tool of disaster risk management much favoured in UN policy suggestions.

It’s not just the underwriters who would welcome greater awareness of the bigger picture amongst climate negotiators. An influential 2009 scientific study published by the Stockholm Resilience Centre lists carbon dioxide concentration as just one of nine critical environmental indicators subject to anthropogenic pressure.

Each indicator has a boundary that delineates a stable planet. Instability consequent to exceeding one of these boundaries does not have a beginning and an end like a flood or cyclone disaster – it represents permanent breakdown.

“This suggests the need for extreme caution,” the study warns. “Planetary boundaries are interdependent because transgressing one may both shift the position of, or result in transgressing, other boundaries.”

The carbon dioxide boundary has already been crossed, in the opinion of the Stockholm team.

In its focus on the risks of extreme events and disasters, the new IPCC report does include scattered references to the interaction of climate change with other environmental factors. There is an opportunity here for all concerned to move on from the neuroses of climate science and revive first principles of eco-stability.

Everyone boarding an aircraft bound for Durban for the UN climate conference starting next Monday knows that the pilot conducts rigorous checks before take-off. One red light will ground the flight. Just a precaution, of course.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK