On Thursday night, as I half-slumbered through a red-eye journey home from four days of uplifting discussions about cities’ carbon reduction efforts, my tired brain took to imagining that the following day’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report would end debate that human activity is causing catastrophic climate change.
As George Monbiot put it, the IPCC’s report is “perhaps the biggest and most rigorous process of peer review conducted in any scientific field, at any point in human history”. Not only does it represent the consensus among hundreds of the world’s leading scientists, but the IPCC process means it has been signed off by the governments of pretty much every country.
The Panel’s conclusions are unequivocal: while we need to constrain temperature rises below 2 degrees above the pre-industrial average to avoid catastrophic climate change, there is a 50/50 chance that we will go as high as 4 degrees this century if carbon emissions are not curbed. In the scientific language it is “extremely likely” (ie odds of 95/100) that human activity is responsible (the same certainty that doctors have that smoking causes cancer).
Moreover, the IPCC is explicit about the global ‘carbon budget’ – the total quantity of greenhouse gases we can risk putting into the atmosphere and preserve a better than 2 out of 3 chance of avoiding runaway global warming. The number is 470 gigatons which, if we continue burning fossil fuels at our current rate, we will reach in just 15 years*.
Yet, as I scanned the news feeds on arrival in back in London I was sadly unsurprised to see that much of the media coverage instead focussed on the IPCC’s finding that air temperatures have not increased as rapidly in the last fifteen years as the previous decade. Note, it is not that global warming has ‘stopped’, indeed the IPCC states that “[e]ach of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850”. It is simply that surface temperatures are not rising in a linear fashion, largely because 93% of the additional heat is being absorbed into the ocean, causing acidification and damage to marine life, but temporarily holding down the rate of ambient global warming.
Many climate scientists had predicted this ‘pause’, even if standard models were not sophisticated enough to identify such relatively small fluctuations in a long-term trend. Yet proponents of action to save humanity from climate catastrophe have nevertheless had to spend the last few days fending off increasingly ridiculous assertions that somehow the IPCC report is an admission that the climate change threat is somehow not so serious after all.
Nick Stern, author of the definitive report on the economic consequences of climate change, dealt with this admirably when asked by Newsnight’s reliably curmudgeonly Jeremy Paxman if he regretted his earlier prescriptions. Yes, he replied, we weren’t hard enough because the latest science shows that we underestimated the risk and the urgency.
The reality is that given a balanced understanding of the climate facts, undistorted by the fossil fuel lobby’s lies and much of the media’s complicit distortion, most people would conclude that the risks posed by climate change are so high that we have to take immediate action.
As Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s commissioner for climate action put it, “What would you do if your doctor was 95% sure you had a serious illness?”. The answer for the vast majority of us, of course, would be to seek urgent treatment. The prescription for the world to avert catastrophic climate change is going to be complex and long term. But the IPCC’s report at least provides a clear diagnosis and identifies the first step in our course of treatment – to stop taking the fossil fuel poison and start now to wean ourselves off coal, oil and gas.
* According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), 31.6 gigtons of greenhouse gases were pumped into the atmosphere in 2011, up 3.2% from the previous year.