The Economist offers a watered-down reading of the recently released IPCC assessment report on climate change Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. The article discusses the report’s dire warnings about the impacts of climate change if current trends continue. But it draws conclusions that misrepresent and minimize the level of agreement among scientists and the urgency of our need for climate action.
The following is a guest post by Climate Nexus (text in PDF format here):
Assessing IPCC Climate Report, The Economist Draws Conclusion at Odds with Report Itself
A recent article in The Economist offers a watered-down reading of the recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II (WG2) assessment report on Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. The article rightly discusses the WG2 report’s dire warnings about the impacts of climate change if current trends continue. However, the piece bookends the science with arguments and conclusions that misrepresent and minimize the level of agreement among scientists and the urgency of our need for climate action. Counter to the article’s argument, the IPCC report actually shows that consensus is high and that action now is imperative. It emphasizes a risk management approach, and shows that climate change increases the risk to a wide variety of sectors.
- Scientific agreement is high that climate change is already producing negative impacts globally, and this will increase as current emissions trends continue.
- Adapting to climate change will not be cheaper or more effective than mitigating it. The report is clear that adaptation and mitigation are both essential.
- Climate change is not being downgraded to a status of “one impact among many.” It’s a threat multiplier that will increase detrimental impacts to many different sectors.
Agreement on the negative impacts of climate change is high. To illustrate the supposedly “elusive” nature of the scientific consensus, the Economist references only Richard Tol of Sussex University in Britain. In fact hundreds of authors and thousands of expert reviewers assessed more than 12,000 scientific papers to produce the WG2 report. Richard Tol is a single dissenting voice (with connections to a major climate denier group), and his conclusions have been seriously questioned by the wider scientific community. The report chapter that he personally authored does not even uphold his own arguments about climate impacts. The Economist goes so far as to characterize Tol as one arguing “dispassionately” against other scientists who supposedly want to “scare the world.”
Adapting to climate change will not be cheaper or more effective than mitigating it. The article misleadingly paraphrases the WG2 report, to the effect that “…right policies frequently try to lessen the burden—to adapt to change, rather than attempting to stop it.” In reality, the report is clear that adaptation must be undertaken in conjunction with mitigation – both are essential (Ch.1 p.14).
This report might include greater discussion on adaptation than the last, but that’s not in any way weakening the call for mitigation. The WG2 report is charged with assessing adaptation along with vulnerabilities and impacts, while the next report, due next week in Berlin (WG3), is charged with focusing in depth on mitigation. Furthermore, the WG2 report acknowledges that by continuing our emissions thus far, we've committed ourselves to some warming that will require adaptation. And for some impacts and in some timeframes, adaptations will compensate for damages. But the report is emphatically clear that adaptation has limits, and without mitigation climate change is sure to exceed those limits.
Climate change increases the risks of other factors affecting human welfare. The suggestion that climate change was once considered exceptional (but now is not) is a straw man argument. Rather, climate change has always been seen as closely interrelated with other threats, and the new report makes that even clearer. According to the IPCC, global warming is now present on every continent and ocean, people everywhere are already being affected, and it is exacerbating ecological, human health, and food production problems around the world (AR5 WG2 SPM p. 6). The Economist writes that public health and nutrition have a greater impact on mortality than climate change – but the report itself states that climate change will have a significant impact on both public health and food security. Action on climate change is an essential part of action on poverty, health, and nutrition.
Members of the business and national security communities see climate change as a “threat multiplier,” as the Pentagon calls it. This is because climate change is a threat to sustainability, which by definition means it influences a variety of social and environmental systems. The Economist’s attempt to downgrade the significant impacts that climate change has on these systems is not a good faith reading of the clear conclusions of the IPCC.
Global warming is continuing, with the last decade the hottest on record. The Economist revives a repeatedly debunked argument that warming has paused that focuses solely on the surface temperature record, and omits evidence of increasing heat in the deep ocean.
Quotes from the experts:
“This report is clear: the impact of climate change on food is worse than previously estimated. We have already seen significant declines in global yields for staple crops like wheat and maize and food price spikes linked to extreme weather, and the picture is set to get much worse. Without urgent action on both adaptation and emissions reduction, the goal of ensuring everyone has enough to eat may be lost forever. Political leaders should ask themselves whether this will be the generation to let that happen.”
-- Tim Gore, Head of Policy, Advocacy and Research for the GROW campaign, Oxfam International
“The climate is a pervasive problem and as a result, the longer you wait the more complex the problem becomes and the more limited the set of solutions is and the more likely it is that you'll end up with uncomfortable levels of impacts. But that doesn't mean we've passed some point of no return. Basically, the longer you wait, the harder it is to solve the problem. It's not clear that there's a clear threshold at some point. Basically, with inaction you're just moving forward into an environment of greater and greater risk.”
-- Professor Chris Field, Co-Chair of IPCC's WG2, founding director of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology, and Professor of Biology and Environmental Earth System Science at Stanford University
“When the IPCC does a report, what you get is the community’s position. Richard Tol is a wonderful scientist but he’s not at the centre of the thinking. He’s kind of out on the fringe... We have other authors who are out on the fringe on the other side, and I can assure you that every one of the 309 authors on my report thinks that his or her research is under-cited and is not adequately represented in the findings of the overall report.”
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Earlier CSW posts: