A world body of 800 climate experts and scientists met in Copenhagen this past week to illustrate the “current expert consensus about climate change and its consequences” to the world. For the past 13 months, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been issuing documents at a feverish pace, culminating in a Synthesis Report issued today.
More than just a summary of previous reports, the Synthesis contains more specific information on the human impact on climate change, the cost and difficulty of mitigation and possible effects on the global food supply. Scientists are optimistic about the 175-page document, which will serve as a guideline for the upcoming global climate treaty negotiations in Lima (December 2014) and Paris (November 2015).
Dr. Michael Mann, Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University and the director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center, says the report “concludes with even higher confidence [95 percent] that the warming of the past century, and other associated climate changes, can only be explained by human activity, i.e. the burning of fossil fuels.” He notes that the report cites several of the “negative impacts” the world is already seeing on “food, water, human health, national security, ecosystems, and our economy.”
Dr. Saleemul Huq, Senior Fellow in the Climate Change Group at The Institute for the Environment and Development echoes that sentiment, saying that, with the Synthesis Report, “the level of warning given [for climate action is] much much more stark.”
Another emphasis of the Synthesis Report, which was not immediately clear in previous IPCC reports, is that mitigation efforts are not fruitless at this stage. All contributing scientists urge that action is required now rather than waiting until after 2020 (when the Paris treaty would take effect).
Dr. Huq says “mitigation is not as difficult as we had originally thought,” as the more actions that are taken to decrease fossil fuel use, the less difficult it is to switch more grids over to renewable energy sources. Keeping global warming under 2°C is still an attainable target, according to Mann. Compared to the costs of delaying or ignoring climate action, “mitigation is relatively inexpensive.” This is the first time an IPCC report has taken economic concerns into consideration with such depth.
The report also makes big picture connections that previous reports did not. As Huq explains, by taking into account the interconnectedness of the global economy, the report shows that there will need to be “responses to decreased food production and quality” as a result of climate change and increased CO2. Wheat production could fall in the U.S. or Russia, which would disproportionately cause a major food crisis in the Middle East, certain African countries like the Sudans or Congo, and island nations that are more dependent on food imports. Food crises could lead to civil unrest and another economic downturn.
The two biggest players in the climate negotiations at this point are the U.S. and China, says Huq. If those two large carbon emitters can come to some sort of actionable agreement by December 2015 in Paris, other countries should be able to follow suit. One of the main factors motivating the U.S. has been the Obama administration’s second-term commitment to climate action. Secretary of State John Kerry’s previous experience with the Kyoto Protocol and environmental advocacy will also be an asset.
Critics have claimed that these reports do not accurately portray “how bad things could be” because of these political issues. The Synthesis Report, however, seems to assuage any doubts on the science or political motivation, making a stronger case for anthropogenic climate change, deconstructing the myth that reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be prohibitively expensive, and warning that failing to acknowledge and adapt to climate change will create food shortages in parts of the world that already experience great conflict.
As Bill McKibben of 350.org told the Guardian, “thanks to the IPCC, no one will ever be able to say they weren’t warned.”