I don't like IPCC report day
If this is the only day we communicate climate science to the public, it's no wonder people don't understand the problem.
Wanna know a secret about the new IPCC report released yesterday? Most people who say they’ve read it have not actually read it.
What they’ve read is the 42-page “Summary for Policymakers”—which, in theory, should be totally fine. The summary document is supposed to be the world’s most comprehensive and authoritative summary of the “current state of the climate, including how it is changing and the role of human influence,” according to the IPCC. There’s really no need for the average person to read a 1,300 page report.
But here’s another secret: the term “fossil fuels” is not included in the IPCC’s 42-page summary document, or the IPCC’s press release. So if you only read the summary for policymakers, you won’t actually learn the full role of human influence on the climate. You’ll find out that human “activities” and “influence” are “unequivocally” causing climate disasters—but which activities and influences are the greatest will remain a mystery. You’ll find out what’s happening to the climate, but you won’t find out why it’s happening or who is responsible. It’s all just “Humans,” “emissions,” “activities,” and “influence.”
You’ll learn the world is ending, and you will not know who to blame.
To be fair, many news reports about yesterday’s IPCC report added that fossil fuels are the main driver of climate change. And U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres was appropriately clear in his press release about the report (emphasis mine): “Greenhouse‑gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk,” he said. “This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet.”
But if you’re only looking to the IPCC alone to know who to blame, you will have to look at the entire 1,300 page document—and you will have to look pretty hard. I haven’t gotten all the way through it and probably never will, but I’ve seen about fifteen references to fossil fuels over the course of many, many hours. Here are the most notable I came across:
“The main human influence on the climate is combustion of fossil fuels and land-use-change-related-CO2 emissions, the principal causes of increased CO2 concentrations since the pre-industrial period.” Page 21, Chapter 1.
Fossil fuel combustion is responsible for 64 percent of the increase in human-caused carbon dioxide emissions since 1750, and responsible for 86 percent of emission growth over the last 10 years. Page 46 of the Technical Summary.
“There is high confidence that this recent growth [in methane emissions] is largely driven by fossil fuel exploitation, livestock, and waste,” Page 35 of the Technical Summary.
“Fossil fuel combustion for energy, industry and land transportation are the largest contributing sectors on a 100-year time scale.” Page 67 of the Technical Summary, referring to “short-lived climate forcers” like methane, ozone, and black carbon.
It’s possible there will be more references to fossil fuels in the second and third parts of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment report, which are scheduled to be finalized in February and March 2022, respectively. (Part two will go over more impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, and part three will cover mitigation.) Last month, Politico reported that a leaked version of one of those reports explicitly “blamed disinformation and lobbying campaigns — including by Exxon Mobil — for undermining government efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increasing the dangers of global warming to society.”
But this is why I generally don’t like IPCC report day. It’s not that it’s bad science—in fact, it’s very good science. Monday’s report—part one of a three-part series expected to be released next year—was written by more than 200 of the world’s leading climate scientists from 66 countries, who distilled more than 14,000 individual research papers to explain the physical science basis of climate change and how humans are altering the planet.
My pet peeve is that IPCC report day is literally the only day the entire political news media communicates climate science to the public. I understand why—IPCC reports are highly prestigious, highly alarming, and highly easy to write about because of the summary. But IPCC reports are not meant to be public communication documents. They are created for world leaders so they can agree to a basic set of facts before engaging in climate negotiations at the United Nations. That means 195 nations need to sign off the report’s language before it gets released—and as a result, the language tends to be pretty conservative, particularly when it comes to talking about who to blame.
If this is the only time we’re communication climate science to the public, then the public is going to get a pretty warped view of what scientists actually know. Even the fact that the IPCC blamed “humans” in general for climate change was considered a huge step this time around. Bloomberg’s Eric Roston and Akshat Rathi noted that yesterday’s report marked “the first time” in the’s IPCC 30-year history that it spoke “with certainty about the total responsibility of human activity for rising temperatures.” Writing for the Atlantic, Rob Meyer said it was the IPCC’s “strongest statement of culpability ever,” and quoted one of the authors celebrating the victory. “In past reports, we’ve had to make that statement more hesitantly,” co-author Gregory Flato told Meyer. “Now it’s a statement of fact.”
I’m sorry, but now it’s a statement of fact that humans cause climate change? Now??? Scientists have known that carbon dioxide traps heat for longer than women have had the right to vote. The warming nature of greenhouse gases was discovered by a literal suffragette in 1856. This dude is saying it took 165 years and 1.1 degrees Celsius of catastrophic warming for the U.N.’s leading climate science body to blame humans unequivocally for the very first time? Ed Markey just called this report “the final warning to the world that time has run out.” But it’s also the first warning from the IPCC that has strongly blamed humans? What??
The IPCC says this is because climate science has advanced significantly since the last time it released a summary report in 2013. From the report:
Progress in our understanding of human influence is gained from longer observational datasets, improved palaeo-climate information, stronger warming signal since AR5 (the fifth assessment report) and improvements in climate models, physical understanding and attribution techniques. Since AR5, the attribution to human influence has become possible across a wider range of climate variables and climatic impact-drivers. New techniques and analyses drawing on several lines of evidence have provided greater confidence in attributing changes in regional weather and climate extremes to human influence (high confidence).
I’m sure this is true, but I also think we’ve known it was fossil fuels for quite some time. The American Petroleum Institute certainly has.
Anyway, that’s my IPCC rant. I don’t have a pithy kicker today. But I do have this absolutely infuriating tweet:
And, of course, a picture of Fish.
Catch of the Day:
The good boy has missed you!
Before you go — in response to the gloom and doom of the IPCC report, my piece on what individuals can do to fight climate change has been spreading around again. Check it out if you haven’t already; maybe it’ll make you feel better!
Hi Emily, thanks for this and I appreciate the concern around fossil fuels.
I'm writing from Brazil. I read a few media pieces, watched the press conference, and just skimmed the summary so am not writing from a very informed perspective. But I was also very concerned about the lack of attention around deforestation, and the Amazon in particular. Under Bolsonaro deforestation is increasing and central Brazil is suffering from the worst drought in 90 years (something barely mentioned in international media in the reporting of freak events). This has an enormous impact on food, water of course, but also hydropower (and is being used by Bolsonaro's government as an excuse to expand coal power - see the excellent Greg News, with subtitles, on this - https://youtu.be/CZ7toUk8BNw) The Amazon is likely nearing a tipping point, absolutely disastrous for both Brazil and the planet. If you think under-reporting is bad in the US, Brazil is infinitely worse and climate issues are rarely reported by the mainstream media or enter political discourse.
I understand the value of a scientific report, but the analysis of a clear statement on causality is glaring (in the case of Brazil, deforestation of Amazon is not just an indigenous rights issue, it's going to make large parts of the country uninhabitable). At least in the US there is a political mobilisation around climate issues, but Brazil, aside from indigenous movements, there is very little. Surely it's a moral responsibility for the IPCC to make the causal processes linked to drivers (fossil fuels, methane and deforestation) absolutely central to the message?
PS. Thanks for the mention of Eunice Newton Foote, I hadn't heard the story. Lawrence Krauss' generally good 'The Physics of Climate Change' discusses Fourier but makes no mention of her, yet another example of women being written out of scientific history.
Why isn't there a close connection between fossil fuel burning and deforestation in the summary for policymakers? This must be intentional. What is going on?
The U.N. Secretary-General message feels like the right one that we must continue repeating. It is clear, simple, and gives direction on what to do that people can understand.