Posted 5 April 2014
"True, much of the tone of the SPM is still somewhat apocalyptic, but the recognition that there is plenty of scope for adaptation is a welcome one. This is pretty much what many sceptics, ‘deniers’ and other critics that some MPs want to see muzzled have been saying for years. The argument has not been about whether climate change has been happening, but about its extent, impact and appropriate responses." The Scientific Alliance, UK, comments on reactions to the latest report of the UN IPCC on climate change.
# Adaptation to climate change should be good for everyone
The second part of the IPCC’s vast 5th Assessment Report was released this week in Yokohama. This is the contribution of Working Group II, charged with assessing the impact of the changes expected, with the physical science lying behind it covered in the recent report from Working Group I.
For the climate change community, the launch of a new Assessment Report is a big event, arguably the biggest in the calendar. Teams of contributing scientists working over a number of years pull together a summary and analysis of pretty much all the recent published studies and evidence. The overall task is divided between three Working Groups, focussing on the scientific basis (WG I), impacts and adaptation (WG II) and mitigation options (WG III).
The Assessment Reports themselves cover published work in a generally quite measured way. However, AR4 was widely criticised for its use of ‘grey’ literature from pressure groups based on which, for example, an unsubstantiated claim about the rapid disappearance of Himalayan glaciers was made. It also appeared that some papers which did not support the general thrust of argument about dangerous, anthropogenic climate change were ignored or discounted.
In such a vast exercise, such things are perhaps inevitable. Scientists are, after all, only human and have their own world views and preconceptions. The scientific method and falsifiability of hypotheses are powerful principles, but are rarely if ever applied completely objectively. To pretend that there is never any bias would be naïve and, given the prevailing orthodoxy on the causes and trajectory of climate change, some favouring of the evidence which supports that view is unavoidable.
The work of the IPCC is governed by a set of principles adopted on its foundation, including this*: “The role of the IPCC is to assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation.”* Notwithstanding the supposedly comprehensive and objective nature of assessments, the body was set up on the understanding that humans are the primary disruptive influence on an otherwise benign climate. Despite this, the conclusions drawn in individual chapters are, by and large, relatively cautious.
But the reports from the Working Groups are not the end of the story. According to a further principle, *“Conclusions drawn by IPCC Working Groups and any Task Forces are not official IPCC views until they have been accepted by the Panel in a plenary meeting.”* Plenary meetings bring in government officials as well as scientists. While accepting the massive reports themselves, the IPCC Panel also nominates a team to write a Synthesis Report (of maybe 50 pages) and ultimately a Summary for Policymakers (SPM). This is done for each Working Group Report plus a final composite for the entire Assessment Report.
The newly-published [SPM for WG II](http://scientific-alliance.us2.list-manage.com/track/click?u=f1e3eeb023e7d88eff0dda8a2&id=0b24783c53&e=83bc8ff1ba) runs to 26 pages plus a further 18 of tables and figures. This is the only document which most interested parties will refer to and, although it is said to be ‘consistent with’ the full Working Group report, it has actually been approved line-by-line by representatives of all participating governments. Governments will not have sent anyone not already fully signed up to a belief in inevitable dangerous manmade climate change unless urgent action is taken, this being the ethos of the whole exercise. SPMs are politicised documents with a point to make.
It seems quite clear from leaks and comments in the blogosphere that significant changes have been made to the final text, emphasising the damage which climate change is likely to bring. Professor Richard Tol, lead author of the economics chapter in the WGII report, has publicly disassociated himself from the SPM, claiming that it is unduly alarmist (see, for example, [Bogus prophecies of doom will not fix the climate](http://scientific-alliance.us2.list-manage2.com/track/click?u=f1e3eeb023e7d88eff0dda8a2&id=e8a0c3b4d0&e=83bc8ff1ba)).
For this, he has been roundly attacked (for example, [Governments reject IPCC economist’s ‘meaningless’ climate costs estimate](http://scientific-alliance.us2.list-manage.com/track/click?u=f1e3eeb023e7d88eff0dda8a2&id=b34c185c21&e=83bc8ff1ba)). If open criticism from within is not welcomed, then external commentators are considered beyond the pale. The BBC has been criticised from some quarters for not allowing critics of climate change policy to be heard, but the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee thinks it is still too lax. According reports, there has been a [Crackdown ordered on climate sceptics](http://scientific-alliance.us2.list-manage.com/track/click?u=f1e3eeb023e7d88eff0dda8a2&id=b81628eb3c&e=83bc8ff1ba).
Andrew Miller, chairman of the Committee, goes further: “*Ministers who question the majority view among scientists about climate change should ‘shut up’ and instead repeat the Government line on the issue, according to MPs…Mr Miller likened climate sceptics to the Monster Raving Loony Party and said that the BBC should limit interviews with them just as it restricted the coverage it gave to fringe political parties.”*
This is an especially narrow-minded and unhelpful attitude, particularly in light of what the WG II report actually says. Despite the hype and accusations of the SPM having been ‘sexed up’, there is a considerable change of emphasis from when AR4 was published seven years ago. In particular, a lot is said about the need to adapt rather than vainly try to mitigate change, and the maximum annual economic loss foreseen for a 2°C temperature rise, even making pessimistic assumptions, is just 2% (although it is only fair to add that some commentators still consider this unduly low).
True, much of the tone of the SPM is still somewhat apocalyptic, but the recognition that there is plenty of scope for adaptation is a welcome one. This is pretty much what many sceptics, ‘deniers’ and other critics that some MPs want to see muzzled have been saying for years. The argument has not been about whether climate change has been happening, but about its extent, impact and appropriate responses.
Despite continued aggression and lack of willingness to discuss the issues, the amount of common ground between the orthodox climate change community and their critics has visibly increased for those willing to see. Now we just need governments to take heed and focus on adaptive measures rather than costly and ineffective attempts to ‘decarbonise’ the economy. Perhaps we are already seeing the beginnings of this if reports of the UK government’s intention to impose [Tough restrictions for onshore wind turbines](http://scientific-alliance.us2.list-manage2.com/track/click?u=f1e3eeb023e7d88eff0dda8a2&id=9a6add1914&e=83bc8ff1ba) comes to fruition.