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As Dire as It Sounds, IPCC Report Is an Understatement

The consensus text does not track the bleeding edge of anxiety

There are two things to keep in mind if you would know the climate future. The first is that, as scientific statesman John Holdren likes to say, it will come to us as a mixture of mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. The second is that the suffering will be disproportionally visited upon the poor and the innocent.

Storm CloudsPhoto by Tal AtlasWhere once there was constant recourse to “this storm/drought/surge is consistent with global warming,” we’re now increasingly likely to hear “this storm/ drought/surge would not have happened without global warming.”

Hold these thoughts when considering the massive tome just issued by the IPCC’s Working Group II. (The much briefer Summary for Policymakers, or SPM, is here). Working Group II (or “WG2” for short) is the part of the International Panel on Climate Change – the largest, most sustained, and arguably most important peer-reviewed scientific enterprise in history – which is focused on understanding climate-change related “impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability.” Its report, released on Monday, comes halfway though the year-long rollout of the three volume set that together make up the IPCC’s “Firth Assessment Report.”

Volume I is focused on climate science in itself – the “physical science basis” of the crisis. It was released in September and can be found here. Volume III, due out later this month, is focused on mitigation – that is, on what the nations of the world can do to slow and then, hopefully, stop greenhouse gas emissions.

Since the release of WG1’s report in late 2013 has perhaps faded from memory, it’s useful to recall it and to pause to appreciate that WG1 did its job well. In fact, it’s not too much to say that the first volume, coming at a time when climate denialism was already sagging, gave us a fine marker of its now accelerating decline. It did so by stepping past the contrived denialist shitstorm that was “Climategate” with a decisive summary and restatement of our increasingly firm – and increasingly grim – understandings.

The scientists are still far too timid in their unwillingness to draw conclusions, but they are getting more forthright. This was evident last fall when, late in the WG1 drafting process, the IPPC quietly took the monumental step of laying out official numbers for the remaining global carbon budgets. (This is a long and somewhat technical story, but it’s also a critical one; see Three salient global mitigation pathways, assessed in light of the IPCC carbon budgets). And it’s evident again in key aspects of the WG2 report, which displays a consistently more forthright position on the question of “attribution.” Where once there was constant recourse to “this storm / drought / surge is consistent with global warming,” we’re now increasingly likely to hear “this storm / drought / surge would not have happened without global warming.”

Food security – a topic that no sane person would dispute the importance of – is a great example. See Joe Romm here for a fine discussion, but let me also quote a bit of text. Note the precise style and understated tone:

“For the major crops (wheat, rice, and maize) in tropical and temperate regions, climate change without adaptation is projected to negatively impact production for local temperature increases of 2°C or more above late-20th-century levels, although individual locations may benefit (medium confidence). Projected impacts vary across crops and regions and adaptation scenarios, with about 10% of projections for the period 2030-2049 showing yield gains of more than 10%, and about 10% of projections showing yield losses of more than 25%, compared to the late 20th century. After 2050 the risk of more severe yield impacts increases and depends on the level of warming… Climate change is projected to progressively increase inter-annual variability of crop yields in many regions. These projected impacts will occur in the context of rapidly rising crop demand.”

The bottom line is simply that while agricultural productivity has continued to increase, the increase has slowed, and sometimes stopped, and this is to a discernible extent because of climate change. And do not take solace in the fact that only 10% of projections show yield losses of more than 25%. The IPCC is learning the virtues of frankness, but it is by its nature a conservative organization. Its consensus text does not in any way track the bleeding edge of anxiety. It lowballed the projected sea level rise back in 2008 when the Forth Assessment Report was released, and its agricultural projections may in time similarly, turn out to be far too comforting. (By the way, the best source for climate-linked agriculture and food security analysis is Oxfam. See here and, more generally, its Hot and Hungry report.)

Then there’s the small matter of climate justice. And I don’t just mean justice as a “nice to have.” I mean justice as a “have to have” – if we want any chance at all of getting though this without winding up in the misery of The Panic Room, or in another of the proliferating doomster enclaves.

The meager consolation is that – barring extreme tipping points – human civilization is not yet doomed. But that’s more than you can say for the poorest and most vulnerable among us. Moreover, they – or at least their representatives in the climate negotiations – know it.

Two big issues here. Let’s take tipping points – or, in IPCC lingo, “large-scale singular events” – first. What does the new report say?

Large-scale singular events: With increasing warming, some physical systems or ecosystems may be at risk of abrupt and irreversible changes. Risks associated with such tipping points become moderate between 0-1°C additional warming, due to early warning signs that both warm-water coral reef and Arctic ecosystems are already experiencing irreversible regime shifts (medium confidence). Risks increase disproportionately as temperature increases between 1-2°C additional warming and become high above 3°C, due to the potential for a large and irreversible sea-level rise from ice sheet loss. For sustained warming greater than some threshold, near-complete loss of the Greenland ice sheet would occur over a millennium or more, contributing up to 7m of global mean sea-level rise.”

It’s not the end of the world, at least not yet, at least not for the citizens of the wealthy world. But for the vulnerable – most often, a term synonymous with “poor” – there’s an entirely different story to be told. Which is why, when it comes to climate, money (usually referred to, discreetly, as “finance”) is ineluctably a critical part of the tale. And why, in the climate world, “the justice question” isn’t just a question of social justice in some vague and poorly defined sense, but refers specifically to the core matter of economic justice. When it comes to climate impacts in particular, it has a great deal to do with the core matter of wealthy world support for adaptation among the poor.

On the question of climate justice, the new report is not particularly brilliant, in part because it avoids notions like “adaptation finance” in favor of the more bloodless, and less illuminating, “global economic impacts.” Here’s the most relevant text:

“Global economic impacts from climate change are difficult to estimate. Economic impact estimates completed over the past 20 years vary in their coverage of subsets of economic sectors and depend on a large number of assumptions, many of which are disputable, and many estimates do not account for catastrophic changes, tipping points, and many other factors. With these recognized limitations, the incomplete estimates of global annual economic losses for additional temperature increases of ~2°C are between 0.2 and 2.0% of income (±1 standard deviation around the mean) (medium evidence, medium agreement). Losses are more likely than not to be greater, rather than smaller, than this range (limited evidence, high agreement).”

There is no end of problems here, but basically they come down to lowballing. (Though there is that nice last sentence). For one thing, the “economic losses for additional temperature increases of ~2°C” are just the start of the problem. There’s also the reality that, absence an unprecedented global mobilization, the temperature increase is going to be a lot greater than ~2°C. And that there are going to be a hell of a lot of non-economic losses as well – think mass extinctions at one end and failed states and increased violent conflict at the other – which can’t be priced in any meaningful sense.

Moreover, and finally, there’s the fact that “adaptation,” properly defined, is going to be a lot more expensive than the elites are willing to countenance. And this despite the fact that as a society we most certainly have the money to pay for it. Witness that fact that even the World Bank’s blinkered and conservative estimate of global adaptation costs – $100 billion a year – is far, far more than the amount that our diplomats have been able to come up with on either the adaptation or mitigation sides of the climate equation.

Please, connect the dots. Because when all the complexities and posturing are put aside, the lack of international climate finance is the root cause of the bitter deadlock in the climate negotiations. Not that finance would solve all the problems – this is going to be hard by any measure – but it would open ways forward. And right now we desperately need them.

While many people are getting depressed, many others are getting angry. One case in point, and a fine place to end this little screed, is a righteous piece called Rich countries: Sure, climate change will screw poor countries, but what about us? that Brentin Mock just wrote for Grist. Mock, a black man who is not afraid to be angry, speculates that race has got something to do with it:

“There is little today that says whiteness is supreme more than arguing that it is an “unrealistic demand” for nations with predominantly, if not exclusive, white leadership to pay what is necessary to protect the people of Africa, India, and South America from climate calamity they did not cause.

The oppression, the bigotry, and the fuckery of that argument is that it allows rich countries to continue perpetuating unrealistic demands on the world’s “poorest” – those who “virtually have had nothing to do with” climate change.

Chattel slavery was an unrealistic demand. Putting Latin American workers in the most dangerous farm and factory jobs, exposing them to pesticides, carcinogens, and other toxic elements so that Walmart can have “roll back” prices – these are unrealistic demands. Asking the poorest of communities to fend for themselves against unprecedented waves of heat, drought, and rising sea levels is an unrealistic demand.

In my estimation, there are two things that will destroy us eventually if not resolved soon: white supremacy and climate change. These happen to both be things that the wealthy believe they can afford to ignore. It’s for this reason that the IPCC’s summary just may be their infamous last words.”

Is Mock right? I myself tend to think that the problem has more to do with the institutionalized blindness and narcissism of the rich (and yes, dear reader, most of us are rich in global terms) than it does with racism. But then, well, I’m a white guy. And, in any case, I don’t see how Mock could be entirely wrong. I certainly find his anger to be a balm.

At least one thing is clear: There’s a storm coming.

Tom Athanasiou, Author and director of Earth Island Project EcoEquityTom Athanasiou photo
Tom is the director of EcoEquity and a member of the Greenhouse Development Rights authors group. His interests focus on distributive justice within a context of global environmental emergency. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and reports, including The Right to Development in a Climate Constrained World, Dead Heat: Global Justice and Global Warming, and Divided Planet: the Ecology of Rich and Poor. He is currently developing a new book, the working title of which is A New Deal for the Greenhouse Century.

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