Cool reaction to IPCC needs a reality check

Last Saturday, two momentous events occurred.

Firstly, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a globally respected Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning international scientific institution, released a summary, vetted line-by-line by all of the world’s governments, of what may be the most thoroughly researched and meticulously reviewed report ever produced in human history: its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), a 1,000-page tome six years in the making, authored and edited by 259 scientists from 39 countries, contributed to by over 600 scientists from 32 countries, reviewed by over 1,000 experts from 55 countries, all volunteering their time, citing vast mountains of evidence from over 9,000 scientific publications, drawing on petabytes of computer model data, which comprehensively documents to an unprecedented degree of certainty and precision, albeit almost certainly underestimating due to the conservative nature of the IPCC process, how fossil fuel burning and other human activities are generating heat-trapping greenhouse gases, warming the planet, disrupting the global climate, acidifying the oceans, overwhelming natural cycles, causing at an accelerating rate increasingly detectable and serious impacts on human societies and ecosystems, locking in catastrophic environmental changes that are probably irreversible for centuries, rapidly approaching extremely dangerous thresholds including feedbacks which would further amplify the warming, and ultimately threatening all of our futures unless we act now to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions and leave most of the Earth’s fossil fuels in the ground – in short, a golden opportunity for journalists to remind the public about the gravity of the situation we find ourselves in.

Secondly, the Hawthorn and Freemantle teams faced off in the Australian Football League‘s annual Grand Final.

I was unaware these events had been scheduled on the same day until I glanced at the front cover of The Saturday Age to find, to my horror, that it gave greater prominence to the Grand Final:

Grand Final front page croppedI was being sarcastic a moment ago – I’ve never understood what all the fuss is about football. I know the game fascinates many people, but is it really more important than global warming? As Ron Weasley from Harry Potter might say, we need to sort out our priorities.

On page 5 was an ad for oil and gas industry jobs. On page 7, an ad for Origin Energy and news about a proposed freeway. On page 12, news that Obama is moving toward auctioning Arctic oil drilling rights and Canada continues to push for approval of the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline. On page 17, an ad for a website selling cars. And on the back page, an airline ad. And that’s just a daily snapshot of the ongoing expansion of the fossil fuel economy, on the most embarrassing day for such announcements. Do people have no sense of irony?

Worse, The Age is perhaps the best of Australia’s mainstream media. I haven’t bothered to buy copies of the more populist newspapers, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they buried the IPCC story in the back pages or failed to mention it at all. If they did mention it, I doubt the coverage was particularly positive. The Murdoch media have, as usual, run a campaign of articles manufacturing doubt about climate change science in the leadup to the release of AR5.

Australian Financial Review Weekend covered the story in a ludicrously biased way. The front page mentions climate, but only in the context of solar power. Other stories the AFR judged important enough to appear on its front page included house prices, Australia’s relations with Indonesia, and the Grand Final. On page 2, wine and Labor Party factions. On page 3, an article on government plans to open up unconventional gas reserves and exploit rising gas prices to oppose anti-coal-sea-gas groups, a car ad, and the Grand Final again.

Not until page 4 did the AFR finally report the AR5, with the headline “Hunt claims vindication on carbon tax”. According to Environment Minster Greg Hunt, the AR5 supports the Liberal government’s plan to repeal the fixed carbon price introduced by the previous government, because international offsets would have allowed emissions to continue rising after the transition to emissions trading scheduled for 2014 or 2015. That much is true, though in my opinion it would have made more sense to fix the policy than scrap it entirely. Hunt then falsely claimed the government’s proposed Emissions Reduction Fund will “ensure Australia meets the emissions reduction targets by 2020”. This is false, because the Fund is voluntary and its budget is capped at an amount considered insufficient by everyone except the government, and consequently may also result in emissions going up, not down. Moreover, the government’s 2020 target of a 5% reduction is pointlessly weak and in no way supported by the AR5. Hunt has since clarified that the government will neither raise the target nor introduce new measures.

The article also quoted Des Moore from the Institute for Private Enterprise (a right-wing think tank associated with the Institute for Public Affairs), who argued there is no point in Australia acting without an international agreement, which is unlikely. In reality, we cannot afford to throw up our hands, so we need to act unilaterally to help kickstart global action.

To the AFR’s credit, it also included an opinion piece by Shadow Environment Minister Mark Butler criticizing the government. However, the AFR included no comment from the Greens, the only party who advocate deep emissions targets and accept the AR5’s implication that most of the Earth’s fossil fuels must be left in the ground to avoid dangerous climate change.

On page 6, news about the Australian government’s ongoing attempts to systematically shut down climate change programs. On page 17, an allegedly neutral news article about the evils of “green tape”.

On page 21, a comment piece by Mark Lawson insinuating that the IPCC is somehow part of a grand conspiracy to protect jobs in climate research, environmental lobby firms, carbon trading, green energy, and government. In reality, the IPCC does not do its own research or modelling, it has few full-time staff, its reports are simply a synthesis of scientific evidence published in peer-reviewed journals and fully referenced to original sources, authors are not paid for IPCC work and are employed by a wide variety of government and non-government scientific bodies from around the world, skeptics can and do sign up as reviewers, all communications made in the review process are logged, the IPCC process has been endorsed by independent reviews, and most governments are doing all they can to expand the fossil fuel industry so it would be in their interests to block any political activism from the IPCC. Why would the Abbott government, elected on a platform of climate deregulation, participate in a conspiracy to protect climate jobs?

Lawson went on to claim the AR5 does not satisfactorily explain the slower atmospheric warming trend of the last 15 years. In reality, this 15-year trend is not considered long enough to be scientifically meaningful, and was only mentioned in the report because of public interest. It is a cherry-picked short-term trend, no more meaningful than the 1992-2006 period which showed a much faster warming trend than average. Moreover, the atmosphere is only one part of the climate system; most of the heat from global warming goes into the oceans. What is important is the long-term trend over multiple decades and the consistent evidence of warming trends across the climate system.

Lawson is incorrect to describe the 15-year trend as a “pause” in global warming. Despite natural influences having a net cooling effect on the climate (such as an unusually low solar minimum and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation going into a cooling phase), the Earth has continued to warm (albeit the atmosphere is warming at a slower rate). The rate of warming remains within the range of model projections. It appears the increasing greenhouse effect is masking the cooling that otherwise would have occurred naturally, implying that when natural factors inevitably shift back into a warming phase, global warming will speed up. Most importantly, the heating of the oceans, the rise of the seas, and the melting of ice have not slowed – in fact they have accelerated, in the latter case faster than any model predicted.

On page 36 of the AFR, Business Council of Australia CEO Jennifer Westacott called for the Abbott government to restart the mining boom by fast-tracking fossil fuel exports through planning approvals. Fossil fuel exports are Australia’s largest contribution to climate change and set to grow exponentially if present proposals are approved. On page 53, an article about the election of coal mining billionaire Clive Palmer. On page 54, Warwick McKibbin framed climate change denial and advocacy of urgent action as two “extreme views” (arguably a key aim of denialism is to enable this inane comparison). His piece reads as though from an alternate universe, claiming his two extremes “dominate the policy debate” and “the former Labor/Green Coalition government swung too far to the climate alarmist position” (presenting no evidence for these astounding statements). It’s ironic that on very back page of the AFR was an article about extreme weather titled “Australia: A disaster waiting to happen”.

The AFR was at it again yesterday with an article arguing the way to solve global warming is to invest in R&D, ignoring the reality that we do not have time to wait for new technologies to be invented.

Deniers have also seized on the AR5’s reduced minimum estimate of climate sensitivity. It’s worth noting this is based on a single piece of evidence, the aforementioned 15-year trend. The median estimate of 3°C per doubling of CO2 has not changed, and is probably an underestimate because of unmodeled amplifying feedbacks which could come into play. Even if the low estimate, 1.5°C per doubling of CO2, proves correct against all odds, under business-as-usual the Earth would still reach global temperatures not seen during the existence of the human species. And in a demonstration of the IPCC’s conservatism, despite deciding to include an outlier low estimate for climate sensitivity it decided not to include outlier high estimates for sea level rise.

On a similar note, leading denier Bjorn Lomborg has cited AR5’s low-end temperature projections as evidence that climate change won’t be so bad. He failed to mention that those low projections are for emissions scenarios in which we urgently implement policies to rapidly cut emissions and leave most fossil carbon in the ground, the very actions which he argues against. We are tracking the highest emissions scenario, for which AR5 projects global warming of 3.2-5.4°C above preindustrial by 2100 and roughly 3-13°C by 2300.

I could go on. There have been an endless number of articles published and claims made in a storm of denialist activity around AR5. The media coverage has been similarly bad in the US and UK, with many headlines emphasizing the supposed slowdown of warming. But you get the picture. The deniers inhabit an alternate universe.

1 comment

  1. Thank you for this insightful update.

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