What the IPCC Report Didn’t Tell Us

By David L. Brown

As I pointed out here last week, the recently released Summary of an upcoming report from the International Panel on Climate Change was produced by what might have been history’s largest committee (see “Does IPCC Report ‘Sugarcoat’ Climate Truth?,” posted February 7). New Scientist magazine has chimed in with a cover story in its February 10-16 issue describing what was not reported in the summary. The sub-head for the story reads “If the official verdict on climate change seems bad enough, the real story looks far worse.”

Admittedly, the new report from IPCC does provide nearly unassailable evidence that human-induced climate change is real. I say “nearly” because the drafting committee used phrases such as “likely,” “very likely” and “extremely likely” to describe the various findings it recognizes. Nonetheless, statistics such as those shown in the graphs below warrant serious attention.

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Still, the IPCC pulled its punches. The problem is that the panel systematically removed from consideration any research that was deemed “controversial, not fully quantified, or not yet incorporated into climate models.” While admitting that through this conservative approach to climate findings “there is now little room left for skeptics,” the New Scientist article raises the serious question that “many legitimate findings have been frozen out.” In other words, the IPCC reports only the most conservative facts, a process that places the threat of climate change at the absolute minimal level. I suggest that skeptics will continue to lobby against global warming “until the cows come home” as my Grandfather used to say.

By soft pedaling its conclusions, the IPCC summary is kind of like putting up a stop sign at a dangerous intersection, but making it only six inches on a side, coloring it brown instead of bright red, setting it twelve feet off to the side, and letting bushes grow up around it.

As recognized here and in the New Scientist article, despite its commitment to minimizing the threat, due to the growing body of facts the report provides significant evidence that climate change is real, and assigns a 90% chance that it is caused by human activity. At least that is something, but what the world needs right now is a very large, flashing, bright neon STOP sign to warn of the dangers ahead.

The overly conservative approach to the IPCC findings is at least in part explained by the fact that the study was performed under political supervision from more than a hundred countries, each providing representatives who vetted the summary line by line with special interests in mind. For example, Chinese and Saudi Arabian representatives to the IPCC have long been proponents of softening language about the effect of fossil fuel emissions on climate. As a result, says the New Scientist piece, “a complex mixture of scientific rigour and political expediency resulted in many of the scientists’ more scary scenarios for climate change – those they constantly discuss among themselves – being left on the cutting room floor.”

The “scary scenarios” ignored by the IPCC Summary include these:

  • Emerging evidence of potential feedback effects and “tipping points” that could rapidly accelerate global climate change;
  • Growing proof that the Greenland ice sheet is melting at an increasing rate and could collapse entirely;
  • Findings that temperatures in Antarctica are rising “faster than almost anywhere on the planet” and that the ice there is also in increasing danger of breaking up;
  • Measurements of the Atlantic Gulf Stream, which plays a major role in the climate of Western Europe, revealing a 30% slowing between 1957 and 2004;
  • The potential effects of accelerating release of greenhouse gas in the Arctic from thawing soil, permafrost and seabed deposits;
  • The potential for dramatic and extreme rises in sea level should ice sheets continue to break up.

The IPCC Summary “virtually ignored” all these factors, each supported by rigorous research and field observations conducted in recent years but not yet fully corroborated or adopted by climate models. For example, the report continued to rely on out-dated climate models that predicted ice sheet melting would take place only slowly and over centuries or even millennia. And yet the latest studies show that both the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets could be close to disintegration and catastrophic collapse, events that could precipitate rapid sea level rise. According to the New Scientist report:

Current climate models assume that the ice sheets will melt only slowly, as heat works its way down through ice more than 2 kilometres thick. But many glaciologists no longer believe this is what will happen.

In reality, they say, ice sheets fracture as they melt, so water can penetrate to the bottom of the ice within seconds, warming its full depth and lubricating the frozen join between ice and the bedrock. Physical break-up of the ice sheets will happen long before thermal melting, they say.

Richard Alley, a US glaciologist who has published widely on the dangers, says climatologists have yet to be convinced that they need to rewrite their models, even though the rate of ice loss in Greenland has unexpectedly doubled in the past decade. The report does note that permanent Arctic sea ice is contracting by 7 per cent every decade.

“Our chapter of the report will say that Greenland is doing things that could make it disintegrate much faster than people think,” Alley says. “But we don’t have a strong basis yet for projecting exactly what the ice sheets will do,” So, he says, the summary excluded the new thinking.

In other words, the ice sheets are turning into a kind of Swiss cheese as they deteriorate from within. This is the kind of vital information that is left out of the IPCC report, only one example of many recent findings that are ignored because they cannot yet be absolutely proven.

The trouble with all of this is that by waiting until proof is absolute before taking action, humanity may be dooming itself to serious consequences. Should the feedback and tipping points already being observed turn out to be real, the effects on our planet could be catastrophic. And what constitutes positive proof? Well, probably the predicted events themselves must be observed before they could be considered absolutely certain. And then, of course, it will be far too late to do anything about it. Let’s hope we don’t end up like the flattened housefly that at last discovered certain proof of the existence of previously rumored fly swatters.

Perhaps the saddest part of it all is that by taking action today, many of the world’s problems could be mitigated. Not least of those is the reliance of the West on petroleum from unstable areas in the Mideast and southern Asia, as well as the rapid increase in atmospheric carbon. A rapid program to develop sustainable (not ethanol or biodiesel from corn and soybeans!) alternative energy sources could defuse these huge interrelated problems over time while boosting Western economies through investment in R&D programs and applications of new technology. There is some movement in this direction, but so far it could best be described as too little, too late.

Our government is spending far and away more money in military adventures intended to protect the supply of petroleum than on efforts to reduce that dependence. This is a tragic misappropriation of resources. The present administration seems to believe that it should leave it to “the private sector” to address these problems. And yet, until now established corporate interests, not least the oil and automobile businesses, have rigorously stuck to past models, even as it is becoming increasingly clear that change is inevitable. Even worse, the government continues to protect those out-dated models through subsidies, tax incentives, depletion allowances, and other incentives against change.

In the end, corporations must either change voluntarily by adapting their business plans to new models, or become obsolete and fail. The record losses by America’s Big Three automakers are grim evidence of which alternative they may choose. There could be huge opportunities ahead for companies that adapt. A century ago, how many makers of harness and buggy whips survived the onset of the automotive age by sticking to their old lines of business? The answer, of course, is none — and yet many of those companies may have gone on to new success with different products suited to the changing times. (For an interesting example, see this web site about how the community of Walsall in England’s West Midlands adapted from being a leading producer of horse tack to a modern source of quality leather goods.)

That is the kind of vision we need today, planning and implementing change as opposed to struggling to hold onto the status quo. But as long as organizations such as the IPCC continue to downplay the possible danger of global warming, and governments continue to coddle and subsidize corporate dinosaurs, no strong incentives for change will exist to help us cope with the rapidly emerging reality of a planet in turmoil.

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