The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is at work on its Fifth Assessment Report (5AR), which is due out next year, and is expected to tell us that warming is continuing, and that the future for humanity is dire. There are lots of people, myself included, who think that the IPCC over-eggs its reports, so there has been much interest in what purports to be a leaked version of the 5AR draft report, the contents of which seem to have some mixed messages.
I don’t intend to get into that today, but rather to set out exactly what the IPCC is and does, and in a sense defend it from some of the charges that are regularly laid against it. In doing that I will also make clear that it is not the body that we, the world’s citizens, actually need to help us deal with ‘climate change’, let alone with our regular climate problems.
The IPCC is an international grandchild of international children, whose parent is the United Nations. It was established in 1988 under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization for the purpose of assessing ‘the scientific, technical and socioeconomic information relevant for the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change.’ Note that last phrase. The focus of the IPCC is explicitly on changes to the climate brought about by humans and their activity.
The IPCC does not carry out new research, and it doesn’t itself monitor climate-related data. It bases its assessments mainly on published and peer reviewed scientific technical literature, the purpose of these assessments being to inform international policy and negotiations on climate-related issues. In doing all this it contributed to and has been hugely justified by the United National Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a treaty adopted in Rio de Janeiro twenty years ago, whose objective is to ‘stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’.
The parties to the treaty meet annually at conventions, each of which is called a ‘Conference of the Parties’. The most famous, because so much was expected of it and so little actually happened, was held in Copenhagen in 2009, and last, just completed, was at Doha in Qatar, which passed almost un-noticed by the media.
The treaty entered into force in 1994. It neither sets binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries, nor provides enforcement mechanisms. Instead, the treaty provides a framework for negotiating specific ‘protocols’, which might set binding limits on greenhouse gases. It led to the Kyoto Protocol, which Kevin Rudd signed with much flourish in 2007 after becoming our Prime Minister. Kyoto is about to lapse. As of 2011, 194 countries were signatories to the treaty, and Australia is one of them.
Now that is the setting in which the IPCC operates. You can see that the IPCC is not obliged to look at anything other than the effects of human activity, and it would not therefore be surprising if those who lead its activities, and write its reports, are worried about that human activity and want us to end or at least moderate the activities they think are responsible for climate change. Nor is it particularly surprising that they think, and tell us, that human activity is far and away the main cause of any climate change.
The problem for the sceptical among us is that this does seem a rather wrongheaded way of going about looking at the causes of climate change. It would have been so much better had the original remit been to understand and report on, not the ‘risk of human-induced climate change’, but ‘the causes of climate change’. Human history gives us abundant examples of serious changes to climate over at least the past three thousand years that led to massive effects on humanity, both for good and ill. Wouldn’t you think that would be the real target?
That the IPCC was given the human-activity target was the consequence of a fear among some scientists that the rise in carbon dioxide emissions was causing an equivalent rise in global temperature, and they could show that this seemed to be the case for the last fifteen years. If it kept going like this, temperature would rise and rise and catastrophically affect human society. That fear generated the the establishment of the IPCC and led to the UNFCCC. From 1998, the year of a massive ENSO-caused high temperature spike, temperatures have flattened out, though carbon dioxide continues to be added to the atmosphere. Indeed, one estimate is that about a third of all the greenhouse gas emissions that have occurred since the industrial revolution have taken place while temperatures have been stable.
What we really need, and we don’t get from the IPCC reports, or from the mountainous collection of articles that start with the assumption that human activity is responsible for global warming, is an account of all the forces that drive climate change. You can try to infer the reality from what is actually published, but it seems to me the wrong way to go about the task. It doesn’t help matters that for governments, which are the real parties to and sponsors of the current system, the IPCC seems to be the authoritative body.
As I have explained, it can’t be, because it is attacking only a part of the question, and worse, it assumes that its part is the whole. We need something else. I don’t know what it is, and perhaps the only likely change to the status quo will be a continuation of stable temperatures, or more worryingly, a cooling, which will in time suggest to governments that they don’t need to take the IPCC so seriously. In the meantime, we in Australia need to deal effectively with with droughts, floods and fires, our three great climate problems, and stabilising greenhouse gas emissions over the globe is a hopeless way of doing this.