New IPCC Report (Part 1)

guest post by Steve Easterbrook

In October, I trawled through the final draft of this report, which was released at that time:

• Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis.

Here’s what I think are its key messages:

  1. The warming is unequivocal.
  2. Humans caused the majority of it.
  3. The warming is largely irreversible.
  4. Most of the heat is going into the oceans.
  5. Current rates of ocean acidification are unprecedented.
  6. We have to choose which future we want very soon.
  7. To stay below 2°C of warming, the world must become carbon negative.
  8. To stay below 2°C of warming, most fossil fuels must stay buried in the ground.

I’ll talk about the first of these here, and the rest in future parts—click to get to any part you want. But before I start, a little preamble.

The IPCC was set up in 1988 as a UN intergovernmental body to provide an overview of the science. Its job is to assess what the peer-reviewed science says, in order to inform policymaking, but it is not tasked with making specific policy recommendations. The IPCC and its workings seem to be widely misunderstood in the media. The dwindling group of people who are still in denial about climate change particularly like to indulge in IPCC-bashing, which seems like a classic case of ‘blame the messenger’. The IPCC itself has a very small staff (no more than a dozen or so people). However, the assessment reports are written and reviewed by a very large team of scientists (several thousands), all of whom volunteer their time to work on the reports. The scientists are are organised into three working groups: WG1 focuses on the physical science basis, WG2 focuses on impacts and climate adaptation, and WG3 focuses on how climate mitigation can be achieved.

In October, the WG1 report was released as a final draft, although it was accompanied by bigger media event around the approval of the final wording on the WG1 “Summary for Policymakers”. The final version of the full WG1 report, plus the WG2 and WG3 reports, have come out since then.

I wrote about the WG1 draft in October, but John has solicited this post for Azimuth only now. By now, the draft I’m talking about here has undergone some minor editing/correcting, and some of the figures might have ended up re-drawn. Even so, most of the text is unlikely to have changed, and the major findings can be considered final.

In this post and the parts to come I’ll give my take on the most important findings, along with a key figure to illustrate each.


(1) The warming is unequivocal

The text of the summary for policymakers says:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.

Observed globally averaged combined land and ocean surface temperature anomaly 1850-2012. The top panel shows the annual values; the bottom panel shows decadal means. (Note: Anomalies are relative to the mean of 1961-1990).

(Fig SPM.1) Observed globally averaged combined land and ocean surface temperature anomaly 1850-2012. The top panel shows the annual values; the bottom panel shows decadal means. (Note: Anomalies are relative to the mean of 1961-1990).

Unfortunately, there has been much play in the press around a silly idea that the warming has “paused” in the last decade. If you squint at the last few years of the top graph, you might be able to convince yourself that the temperature has been nearly flat for a few years, but only if you cherry pick your starting date, and use a period that’s too short to count as climate. When you look at it in the context of an entire century and longer, such arguments are clearly just wishful thinking.

The other thing to point out here is that the rate of warming is unprecedented:

With very high confidence, the current rates of CO2, CH4 and N2O rise in atmospheric concentrations and the associated radiative forcing are unprecedented with respect to the highest resolution ice core records of the last 22,000 years

and there is

medium confidence that the rate of change of the observed greenhouse gas rise is also unprecedented compared with the lower resolution records of the past 800,000 years.

In other words, there is nothing in any of the ice core records that is comparable to what we have done to the atmosphere over the last century. The earth has warmed and cooled in the past due to natural cycles, but never anywhere near as fast as modern climate change.


You can download all of Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis here. It’s also available chapter by chapter here:

  1. Front Matter
  2. Summary for Policymakers
  3. Technical Summary
    1. Supplementary Material

Chapters

  1. Introduction
  2. Observations: Atmosphere and Surface
    1. Supplementary Material
  3. Observations: Ocean
  4. Observations: Cryosphere
    1. Supplementary Material
  5. Information from Paleoclimate Archives
  6. Carbon and Other Biogeochemical Cycles
    1. Supplementary Material
  7. Clouds and Aerosols

    1. Supplementary Material
  8. Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing
    1. Supplementary Material
  9. Evaluation of Climate Models
  10. Detection and Attribution of Climate Change: from Global to Regional
    1. Supplementary Material
  11. Near-term Climate Change: Projections and Predictability
  12. Long-term Climate Change: Projections, Commitments and Irreversibility
  13. Sea Level Change
    1. Supplementary Material
  14. Climate Phenomena and their Relevance for Future Regional Climate Change
    1. Supplementary Material

Annexes

  1. Annex I: Atlas of Global and Regional Climate Projections
    1. Supplementary Material: RCP2.6, RCP4.5, RCP6.0, RCP8.5
  2. Annex II: Climate System Scenario Tables
  3. Annex III: Glossary
  4. Annex IV: Acronyms
  5. Annex V: Contributors to the WGI Fifth Assessment Report
  6. Annex VI: Expert Reviewers of the WGI Fifth Assessment Report

12 Responses to New IPCC Report (Part 1)

  1. zhaphod says:

    I don’t know how IPCC members/Climate scientists still wake up in the morning and go to work knowing no country in the world is doing anything to address the issue. I can only hope they keep working on this.

    • John Baez says:

      I think it’s a big exaggeration to say “no country in the world is doing anything to address this issue”. The European Union is doing quite a bit, for example. You can argue they’re not doing enough, and you can argue that they’re exaggerating what they are doing—but I don’t think you can argue they’re not doing anything.

      Here is something from their webpage:

      Targets up to 2050

      EU leaders have committed to transforming Europe into a highly energy-efficient, low carbon economy. The EU has set itself targets for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions progressively up to 2050 and is working successfully towards meeting them.

      Under the Kyoto Protocol, the 15 countries that were EU members before 2004 (‘EU-15′) are committed to reducing their collective emissions to 8% below 1990 levels by the years 2008-2012. Emissions monitoring and projections show that the EU-15 is well on track to meet this target. Most Member States that have joined the EU since 2004 also have Kyoto reduction targets of 6% or 8% (5% in Croatia’s case) which they are on course to achieve.

      For 2020, the EU has committed to cutting its emissions to 20% below 1990 levels. This commitment is one of the headline targets of the Europe 2020 growth strategy and is being implemented through a package of binding legislation. The EU has offered to increase its emissions reduction to 30% by 2020 if other major emitting countries in the developed and developing worlds commit to undertake their fair share of a global emissions reduction effort.

      In the climate and energy policy framework for 2030, the European Commission proposes that the EU set itself a target of reducing emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.  

      For 2050, EU leaders have endorsed the objective of reducing Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95% compared to 1990 levels as part of efforts by developed countries as a group to reduce their emissions by a similar degree. The European Commission has published a roadmap for building the low-carbon European economy that this will require.

      Taking the initiative

      EU initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions include:


      Other countries are also taking action… though probably not enough.

      • lee bloomquist says:

        zaphod wrote: “I don’t know how IPCC members/Climate scientists still wake up in the morning and go to work knowing no country in the world is doing anything to address the issue. I can only hope they keep working on this.”

        No doubt there is some action by governments but there’s a feeling here that seems on track, and maybe it would help to clarify it. Is there a set of noncontroversial statements that might help? My attempt: First, no government is free of corruption no matter how many, or all, of the people under a particular governance can be fooled part, or all, of the time. Likewise a clear path to the power that corrupts seems to be generating strong emotions in those who can be fooled into providing the desired political support. Which emotion seems basically to emerge from a proposition expressed in many ways, all basically equivalent to “Believing is necessary and sufficient for knowing.” While on the other hand, even with the technical difficulties in the words “necessary” and “sufficient,” most of us here would agree that “knowing necessarily means believing,” but “believing does not necessarily mean knowing.” Example: Galileo encountered strong emotion when he said the Earth moves around the sun. Today it would be impossible to generate that level of emotion because most of us Know that the Earth moves around the Sun. We are at peace with that because now we Know. It was Believing that generated all the strong emotion (including the belief that Believing means Knowing). Granted, on a different blog all of this might be controversial but I don’t expect it to be controversial here.

        To what extent is governmental corruption, and misperception of governmental corruption by the governed, preventing governmental action on climate change? If the political enabler of the corrupted power is “Believing is necessary and sufficient for Knowing” it would be logical that there are powers in the world opposing the correction of this proposition in the minds of people. As a consequence, there may be a feeling that understanding how corruption prevents action on climate change would, unjustly, be of minimal interest to governments. On the question of corruption and climate change, how many scientific studies are being funded?

        • lee bloomquist says:

          On the question of governmental spending on military preparedness for war and economic commitment to addressing climate change, have any scientific studies been funded?

        • John Baez says:

          It may not be what you’re asking about, but there’s plenty of overlap between military preparedness and preparing for climate change. DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, had a meeting in 2009 to explore geoengineering ideas. The CIA opened The Center on Climate Change and National Security in September 2009. It was closed in November 2012, supposedly due to budgetary constraints… but perhaps actually because it had become a lightning-rod for criticism from Republican senators. When it was closed, a CIA spokesman said “This work is now performed by a dedicated team in an office that looks at a variety of economic and energy security issues affecting the United States.” I think the CIA is not so stupid as to quit paying attention to these issues.

          There’s also the Center for Climate and Security:

          The Center for Climate and Security (CCS), a nonprofit “think and action tank” with a distinguished Advisory Board of senior retired military leaders and security professionals, envisions a climate-resilient world. This is a world which recognizes that climate change risks are unprecedented in human history, and does not wait for absolute certainty before acting to mitigate and adapt to those risks. To further this goal, CCS facilitates policy development processes and dialogues, provides analysis, conducts research, and acts as a resource hub in the climate and security field.

        • John Baez says:

          The Quadrennial Defense Review 2014, put out by US Defense Department, says:

          Climate change poses another significant challenge for the United States and the world at large. As greenhouse gas emissions increase, sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating. These changes, coupled with other global dynamics, including growing, urbanizing, more affluent populations, and substantial economic growth in India, China, Brazil, and other nations, will devastate homes, land, and infrastructure. Climate change may exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in food costs. The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions–conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.

  2. Daniel says:

    I was with you until this sentence: “In other words, there is nothing in any of the ice core records that is comparable to what we have done to the atmosphere over the last century.” Why not, “comparable to what we’ve seen before”? I believe we’re to blame, but this sentence to me stands out from the rest of your summary as jumping to conclusions…

    • John Baez says:

      Daniel wrote:

      Why not, “comparable to what we’ve seen before”?

      Steve was just summarizing what he said more precisely in the previous passage:

      The other thing to point out here is that the rate of warming is unprecedented:

      With very high confidence, the current rates of CO2, CH4 and N2O rise in atmospheric concentrations and the associated radiative forcing are unprecedented with respect to the highest resolution ice core records of the last 22,000 years

      and there is

      medium confidence that the rate of change of the observed greenhouse gas rise is also unprecedented compared with the lower resolution records of the past 800,000 years.

      So, if we want to discuss this, we should consider rates of warming: the current ones, and those observed in ice cores.

  3. Andrew Robinson says:

    “To stay below 2°C of warming”. In the last 100 years, CO2 levels have increased from 280ppm to over 380ppm, which is alleged to be completely responsible for the 1.2°C rise in temperatures we have experienced in that same time frame. Yet the world didn’t come to an end. In fact, no one noticed global warming was occurring until about 25 years or so ago. So what logic/evidence is there that that an additional 0.8°C increase in temperature is something to worry about, if it should happen in the next 50 years?

  4. […] Easterbrook at The Azimuth Project explains What Does the New IPCC Report Say About Climate Change, taking a tour through its summary for policymakers, but bringing in material from the physical […]

  5. A similar graph is shown in the important series by Steve Easterbrook recapping the recent IPCC Report. A great deal of excess heat is going into the oceans. In fact, most of it is […]

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