Climate Change

IPCC Special Report: Scientific consensus must form basis for political action

It is the integrity of the scientific process that must take precedence over politics, rather than the other way round

By Tarun Gopalakrishnan
Published: Friday 05 October 2018
Climate Change Talks
Delegates at the 2015 Paris Climate Summit      Credit: Flickr Delegates at the 2015 Paris Climate Summit Credit: Flickr

The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is nearing the culmination of its latest Special Report. The report, to be published on October 8, will evaluate the prospect of meeting the target outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement—limiting global average temperature increase to less than 2 degrees Celsius (°C) over pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to achieve 1.5°C. In the last few years, scientists around the world have accumulated increasing evidence that the impacts of a 2°C temperature rise are much worse than previously anticipated—leading them to conclude that a 1.5°C limit is far safer. This Special Report, which reviews and synthesises the work of these scientists, will hence fundamentally influence the warming trajectory that we choose to take.

Apart from the report, which is expected to stack up at a weighty 1,000 pages, the IPCC also prepares a “Summary for Policymakers” (SPM). The SPM encapsulates the main findings of the report and presents policymakers with recommendations of actions that are necessary to address the climate impacts. Earlier drafts of the SPM were leaked in January and June this year. They drew a great deal of press attention, and have added a further layer of politicisation to the scientific process.

The discussion around the report has highlighted some of the fundamental questions that challenge scientists working on climate change—the importance of the 1.5°C target, whether climate change is fundamentally a scientific issue or a socio-economic one, and the role of scientific consensus in driving policy action.

Questions have been raised, for example, as to how scientific understanding has changed since the Paris Agreement (which referred to both, the 1.5° and 2°C targets). The leaked drafts of the report’s summary indicates that scientific understanding has progressed—differentiated impacts at 1.5 and 2 degrees can now be identified with greater precision—which makes the stakes and  challenges before us much clearer. The increasing frequency and severity of recent wildfires, heat waves, extreme precipitation and superstorms already offers a vivid illustration of the impacts of a 1°C warmer climate. This report would place those headlines in context, and should cause policymakers to reflect on what to expect if we cross 1.5°C. Any such reflection, however, will depend strongly on the quality of the SPM.

Apart from drafts of the SPM leaking earlier this year, comments on it by countries were leaked earlier this week. This has raised questions about the possibility of governments (particularly the United States) attempting to politicise the summarisation of a scientific analysis. Attention has particularly focused on sections of the leaked drafts which address the connections between climate change, poverty and sustainable development.

It is important to note that the content of the Special Report itself is based on a review of scientific literature, not on political negotiations. All scientific conclusions will be available in the main report, so political wrangling over the summary will not change the underlying science. However, it is equally important that governments recognise the large body of scientific evidence which identifies strong synergies and some trade-offs between sustainable development and climate action. Attempts by any government to question this intersection, even if they are limited to the summary, fly in the face of several scientific studies on the subject.

If concerns about politics play a big part in the framing of the problem, they play an even bigger part in the debate about potential solutions. Leaked drafts of the summary have referred to “1.5°C-consistent pathways”, including in the context of specific sectors (such as energy, buildings and transport). Some have questioned whether this is, in effect, a prescription for the policy needed to achieve the 1.5°C goal. To answer that question, the “pathways” language needs to be seen in its proper context.

The IPCC studiously refrains from policy prescriptions. The reason it analyses pathways here is because it has been clearly invited by the Paris Decision of 2015 to “provide a special report in 2018 on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways” (emphasis added). It is, thus, well within the IPCC’s mandate to review the scientific literature and conclude that hitting this goal will require significant emissions reductions. This basic statement of fact only looks like a policy prescription to those who are in denial about the obvious need for emissions reductions in the first place.

As over 6000 scientists gather in Incheon, South Korea, this week to finalise the 1.5°C report, the need to respect the integrity of the scientific process is greater than ever. At the same time, these IPCC reports form the bedrock on which climate policy is determined for decades to come. Both, the report and its summary need to accurately convey the severity of the climate crisis. If they do, policymakers can finally be confronted concretely with the cost of doing nothing.

(With Padmini Gopal)

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