The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Synthesis Report was recently released. Cloaked in the veneer of “the science” it claims that human activities have “unequivocally caused global warming, with global surface temperature reaching 1.1°C above 1850–1900 in 2011–2020.” The reality is much more nuanced.
The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.
The Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act (Climate Act) has been a primary focus of this blog the last several years. I have written over 300 articles about New York’s net-zero transition because I believe the ambitions for a zero-emissions economy embodied in the Climate Act outstrip available renewable technology such that the net-zero transition will do more harm than good. I have not published many articles about the climate change rationale for the Climate Act because I don’t think the political momentum to do something in New York can be slowed because of the religious devotion to the existential climate threat narrative. The latest IPCC report will further that narrative but it turns out that was the purpose of the report. Since the release of the IPCC report, two authors who have had extensive experience with the IPCC process have published articles that demonstrate that the IPCC has “strayed far from its role to assess the scientific literature in support of policy making”. As a result there is more politics than science behind the headlines about the IPCC analysis dominating the recent news.
Roger Pielke, Jr.
Dr. Pielke argues that the IPCC has outlived its usefulness and needs to be overhauled:
Before proceeding, it is important to understand that the IPCC is not a single entity or group of people. It is many different groups doing many different things, with many strengths — for instance, WG1 on extremes was particularly good. The IPCC also has some notable weaknesses — its reliance on out-of-date scenarios most obviously. The Synthesis Report was written by a small group of people. For better or worse, the work of this small group of people reflects upon the entire IPCC and the years of effort leading to this week’s report.
If I were an IPCC participant not involved with the Synthesis Report, I’d be pretty upset. My view is that the IPCC has strayed far from its role to assess the scientific literature in support of policy making. Its has increasingly taken on a stance of explicit political advocacy and as it does so it has ignored and even misrepresented relevant science. The IPCC needs a complete overhaul.
He goes on to argue that the document has become scientific assessment minus the science:
Six reports, dozens of drafts, hundreds of authors, thousands of citations, tens of thousands of pages, almost a decade of effort – and after all that, here is the top-line conclusion of the past nine years of work under the umbrella of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: “Urgent climate action can secure a liveable future for all”
That’s it. Generic and empty political exhortation that is all-so-common in climate advocacy. No science at all.
What is a “liveable future” we might ask?
Who knows? It is not a scientific term, and it is not even defined by the IPCC. The phrase appears in the IPCC AR6 Working Group 2 report and can also be found in the IPCC Special Report on 1.5 degrees Celsius. It comes from a part of the academic literature that emphasizes “climate-resilient development.”
The new report downplays research showing that extreme scenarios are increasingly implausible and once again centers research that emphasizes RCP8.5 and SSP5-8.5. The report justifies this emphasis when it states in a footnote buried deep in the report: “Very high emission scenarios have become less likely but cannot be ruled out.”
This is far too clever. An alien invasion next week is also low likelihood, but cannot be ruled out.
None of the relevant literature on scenario plausibility is cited in the Synthesis Report, despite appearing in the most recent IPCC assessment reports. The “cannot ruled out” gambit gives the IPCC a way to keep extreme scenarios at the center of the report while evading any discussion of plausibility.
Pielke’s particular expertise is quantification of loss and damage impacts of extreme weather. The IPCC relies on loss and damage as the rationale why action is needed: Economic impacts attributable to climate change are increasingly affecting peoples’ livelihoods and are causing economic and societal impacts across national boundaries”. Pielke explains that rather than explaining what they mean and quantifying those impacts, the IPCC “relies on a series vague, imprecise and readily mis-interpretable statements.” There is a reason. There is a lot of research that runs contrary to the narrative:
Readers here will know that the overall number of weather and climate disasters have decreased so far this century, economic losses as down as a proportion of economic activity and deaths and people affected by extremes are sharply down in recent decades.
In an effort to aid the work of the IPCC in 2020 I published a literature review of 54 studies on loss and damage which quantified the relative roles of climate and development in economic losses from weather extremes. The IPCC not only ignored my review, but in its literature review it also ignored 53 of the 54 papers, choosing to cite only one paper which asserted the attribution of losses to greenhouse gas emissions – the other 53 did not. None of this data or research gets mentioned by the IPCC, which is just remarkable.
Dr. Curry describes the latest report:
The new IPCC Report is a synthesis of the three reports that constitute the Sixth Assessment Report, plus three special reports. This Synthesis Report does not introduce any new information or findings. While the IPCC Reports include some good material, the Summary for Policy Makers for the Synthesis Report emphasizes weakly justified findings on climate impacts driven by extreme emission scenarios, and politicized policy recommendations on emissions reductions.
It is important to understand that projections for future impacts are dependent upon two things: the atmospheric effects of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the amount of emissions entering the atmosphere. Curry and Pielke have both argued for years that the IPCC has used biased emissions estimates. Curry states:
The most important finding of the past 5 years is that the extreme emissions scenarios RCP8.5 and SSP5-8.5, commonly referred to as “business-as-usual” scenarios, are now widely recognized as implausible. These extreme scenarios have been dropped by UN Conference of the Parties to the UN Climate Agreement. However, the new Synthesis Report continues to emphasize these extreme scenarios, while this important finding is buried in a footnote: “Very high emission scenarios have become less likely but cannot be ruled out.”
The extreme emissions scenarios are associated with alarming projections of 4-5oC of warming by 2100. The most recent Conference of the Parties (COP27) is working from a baseline temperature projection based on a medium emissions scenario of 2.5oC by 2100. Since 1.2oC of warming has already occurred from the baseline period in the late 19th century, the amount of warming projected for the remainder of the 21st century under the medium emissions scenario is only about one third of the warming projections under the extreme emissions scenario.
She ties these emission scenarios to the “loss and damage” rationale used by the IPCC:
The Synthesis Report emphasizes “loss and damage” as a central reason why action is needed. It is therefore difficult to overstate the importance of the shift in expectations for future extreme weather events and sea level rise, that is associated with rejection of the extreme emissions scenarios. Rejecting these extreme scenarios has rendered obsolete much of the climate impacts literature and assessments of the past decade, that have focused on these scenarios. In particular, the extreme emissions scenario dominates the impacts that are featured prominently in the new Synthesis Report.
Clearly, the climate “crisis” isn’t what it used to be. Rather than acknowledging this fact as good news, the IPCC and UN officials are doubling down on the “alarm” regarding the urgency of reducing emissions by eliminating fossil fuels. You might think that if warming is less than we thought, then the priorities would shift away from emissions reductions and towards reducing our vulnerability to weather and climate extremes. However, that hasn’t been the case.
The IPCC has been characterized as a “knowledge monopoly,” with its dominant authority in the UN climate deliberations. The IPCC claims that it is “policy-neutral” and “never policy-prescriptive.” However, the IPCC has strayed far from its chartered role of assessing the scientific literature in support of policy making. The entire framing of the IPCC Reports is now around the mitigation of climate change through emissions reductions.
Not only has the IPCC increasingly taken on a stance of explicit political advocacy, but it is misleading policy makers by its continued emphasis on extreme climate outcomes driven by the implausible extreme emissions scenarios. With its explicit political advocacy, combined with misleading information, the IPCC risks losing its privileged position in international policy debates.
The impact of these alarming IPCC reports and rhetoric by UN officials is this. Climate change has become a grand narrative in which human-caused climate change has become a dominant cause of societal problems. Everything that goes wrong reinforces the conviction that there is only one thing we can do to prevent societal problems—stop burning fossil fuels. This grand narrative leads us to think that if we solve the problem of burning fossil fuels, then these other problems would also be solved. This belief leads us away from a deeper investigation of the true causes of these other problems. The end result is a narrowing of the viewpoints and policy options that we are willing to consider in dealing with complex issues such as energy systems, water resources, public health, weather disasters, and national security.
I wanted to publish something about the latest IPCC report because it is being promoted as definitive science. The thing to keep in mind is that the scientists who wrote the analyses in the IPCC reports, were not the primary authors of the Synthesis Report and had no hand in the Summary of the Synthesis Report that is the basis for all the news reports. As a result, do not panic over the claims of doom and gloom.
Both Pielke and Curry argue that the IPCC process is flawed. Pielke concludes: “Between the IPCC Synthesis Report’s evasion of the most recent literature on scenarios and the games it has played with loss and damage research and evidence, the IPCC is skating close to becoming a source of climate misinformation.” Curry concludes that “The IPCC Reports have become “bumper sticker” climate science – making a political statement while using the overall reputation of science to give authority to a politically manufactured consensus.”