Good Sunday Morning – August 8

Tomorrow, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release its most comprehensive review of the physical evidence of global warming since 2013.  While I have not heard any specifics, having tracked the IPCC since its creation in 1988, I can guarantee this: the report will underestimate the risk and over-estimate how much time we have to avoid that risk.

How do I know?  Because it is the nature of the beast.

The IPCC is, as the name suggests, a process that is “inter-governmental.”  195 countries (all nations on earth) contribute to the process; all governments appoint scientists to the panel.  There are three Working Groups in the IPCC. Tomorrow’s report will be from Working Group 1 – the group that looks at the physical science.  Working Group 2 reviews the vulnerability of humans and nature to climate impacts -as well as measures to adapt to coming changes. That group will report in February.  Working Group 3 looks at technology to address the crisis with its report due in March.

Frequent media commentary treats the IPCC as an advocacy group. Some constituents write me that they do not trust the IPCC, somehow feeling it is discredited.  Much of this goes back to the 2009 attack and hatchet job on the IPCC based on stolen emails that were distorted and skewed out of recognition to create a fake “scandal.”  To avoid digressing too dangerously backward, let me just say that in 2009, I had all 4,000 of the hacked emails printed out so I could read them all.  I needed to know for myself that there was no skulduggery. Several governmental and academic reviews confirmed what I found. Nothing. A scandal over smoke. No fire.

Anyway, the IPCC process to develop consensus reports is the world’s most rigorous peer-review process. The scale of the review is daunting.

This is from the IPCC’s description of the current review by Working Group 1:

“The first-order draft of the Working Group I report received 23,462 review comments from 750 expert reviewers, the second-order draft received 51,387 review comments from governments and 1,279 experts, and the final government distribution of the Summary for Policymakers that ended on 20 June received over 3,000 comments from 47 governments – 23 developing, 23 developed plus the European Union. Over 14,000 scientific papers are referenced in the report.”

The underestimation of impacts is baked into a process that starts with reviewing published science.  The delay is inevitable.  Each full assessment process takes seven years.  What will be released tomorrow is the first part of the sixth full scientific review of the science since the formation of the IPCC in 1988.  I remember when the fourth assessment came out.  It had high confidence in a projection of about a one metre sea level rise by 2100. This was based on calculations of the physical expansion of the oceans because warmer water takes up more space than colder water. But by the time the report was released, new research was pointing out the risk of eight metre sea level rise if the Western Antarctic ice sheet collapsed – or another eight metre rise if the Greenland ice sheet should collapse.  The earlier science was carefully described, but the newer information just did not make it into a report where new information is too late for review.

The IPCC always understates the risk and always overstates how much time remains to avoid the worst.  And because the final report is edited line by line by governments, the statement of the worst-case scenario is edited out or watered down.  Thus, we knew that early drafts of the October 2018 Special Report on 1.5 degrees C had included the risk of runaway global warming. The early drafts set out that failing to meet Paris Agreement targets of holding to as far below 2 degrees C as possible, and preferably to 1.5 degrees C global average temperature rise, could lead to unstoppable self-accelerating warming that could make the planet uninhabitable.  It was reported that the US and Saudi Arabia edited that out (that’s right- the Trump White House held a red pencil on edits).

The Special Report on 1.5 Degrees C was, as is clear from this brief tutorial on the IPCC, a report that landed between the 7-year reviews.  It was requested by the countries negotiating the Paris Agreement at COP21. (If you want to check the UNFCCC website you can find both documents negotiated in Paris- the Paris Agreement itself and the COP21 Decision Document that contained critical steps before 2020.

Having agreed on language about staying as far below 2 degrees C as possible and preferably holding to 1.5 degrees C, the negotiators included a specific request to the IPCC to report on what the difference between 2 degrees C and 1.5 degrees C would mean in terms of impact.  The IPCC was requested to deliver its review prior to the climate negotiations taking place in Katowice Poland at COP24, December 2018.

Now that you know the IPCC never exaggerates impact and, in fact, always does the opposite, before tomorrow’s report hits the news cycle, let’s look at what we were warned in October 2018.

The differences between 1.5 and 2 degrees C were hugely significant.  The critical  importance of holding to no more than 1.5 degrees C was clear. Equally clear was that the only way to hold to 1.5 was immediate action; reducing emissions on a steep decline.

“In model pathways with no or limited overshoot of 1.5°C, global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 reaching net zero around 2050 …” (emphasis added)

This key finding is from Chapter 3 of the same report:

“The rate of change for several types of risks may also have relevance, with potentially large risks in the case of a rapid rise to overshooting temperatures, even if a decrease to 1.5°C can be achieved at the end of the 21st century or later (medium confidence). If overshoot is to be minimized, the remaining equivalent CO2 budget available for emissions is very small, which implies that large, immediate and unprecedented global efforts to mitigate greenhouse gases are required (high confidence). {3.2, 3.6.2, Cross-Chapter Box 8 in this chapter}”

This warning has not been heeded.  The call for “immediate and unprecedented global efforts” is now nearly three years old.  Bear in mind again – the IPCC over-estimates how much time we have.  The situation is desperate. The call for action is growing stale-dated as we teeter on the edge of oblivion.

Our government has been playing semantic games with IPCC advice.  Where the IPCC mentions that by 2050 we should be at net zero, the context is clear.  We only hold to 1.5°C with dramatic and immediate reductions before 2030.  Our Environment Minister and prime minister either do not understand this or are lying to us by claiming that the right target is “net zero by 2050.”  It would be nice to have nearly three decades for any target.  But as we have known since October 2018, the window on 1.5°C will close – and close forever – by 2030.

As we brace for an imminent election, maybe the latest Working Group 1 report will revisit the October 2018 Special Report on 1.5 Degrees. Maybe the IPCC will denounce Justin Trudeau and Jonathan Wilkinson by name.  Maybe the IPCC will even call out Jagmeet Singh for his particular brand of self-righteous uselessness. But, that will not happen,

Only Canadians can hold their elected leaders to account.  No one should be let off the hook- even if Green.  All people running for office this year need to be prepared to explain their understanding of the science and their plans and programmes to save us from the worst.

Be prepared. If I were a betting person, I would bet on an election being launched one week from today.  I would like to be wrong!

At every all-candidate meeting, please take them on. Every last one.

As Greta says, “Our house is on fire.” Help us rescue everyone in the house.




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