THE LATEST report on climate change is impressive in stature and detail but it's unlikely to make governments, businesses or consumers take action.
The latest global climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was published on March 31st 2014. At 2,600 pages, incorporating 73,000 published works, this was no April fool. The panel’s chair, Rajendra Pachauri, said he wanted to “jolt people into action”.
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, said: “Read this report and you can’t deny the reality.” He added: “Science tells us
our climate and our way of life are literally in jeopardy.” And in a spookily similar statement the UK climate change secretary, Ed Davey, admitted that “the science has clearly spoken. Left unchecked, climate change will impact on many aspects of our society, with far-reaching consequences to human health, global food security and economic development.”
Hold on a second. Wasn’t all of this already clear?
True enough, this has been one of the most impressive reports of its kind. It was built on the work of 300 scientists, and the authors had access to twice as much science literature as their predecessors did for the 2007 edition (this is the second of three). Some of their conclusions have thus been made with a greater degree of certainty, while the vulnerable people, industries and ecosystems have been assessed in more detail than ever before. All vitally important stuff.
But the bottom line (as the co-chair of the working group in charge of the publication, Vicente Barros, said) remains: “We live in an era of man-made climate change. In many cases, we are not prepared for the climate-related risks that we already face. Investments in better preparation can pay dividends both for the present and for the future.”
In other words, the time for talking is over. The risks are too great. Now is the time for action. As Davey put it: “We cannot afford to wait.”
So why has everyone been waiting? Is this the report that will break the camel’s back and force governments across the world to unite in a new agreement to curb carbon emissions – something that they have spectacularly failed to do so far?
It’s unlikely. Even the WWF, one of the most rational voices in the climate debate, preferred to point out the shortcomings of report after report after report. Sandeep Chamling Rai, who led the group’s delegation to the IPCC meeting, explained that the gap between the science and what governments are doing “remains huge” – and this despite the warnings by the IPCC in its reports for the past two decades.
“The science is clear and the debate is over,” he added. “Climate change is happening and humans are the major cause of emissions, driven mainly by our dependence on fossil fuels. This report sets out the impacts we already see, the risks we face in the future and the opportunities to act. Now it is up to people to hold their governments to account, to get them to act purposefully and immediately.”
Many will have seen the coverage in the national papers, TV and radio, but will it have prompted them to take action? According to a poll by WWF-UK in March, seven out of 10 people already believe that climate change is one of the biggest issues facing the planet, with 64% admitting that the recent floods have made them “more concerned about the impacts”. Nine out of 10 also feel that “we all have a role to play” to help protect the environment.
But as Jonathan Rowson, the director of the social brain centre at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), managed to sum up in less than 140 characters on Twitter recently: “The biggest climate challenge is that most people accept the problem, but don’t live as though they do.”
Two-thirds of the public, according to RSA/YouGov figures, are also very good at what Rowson calls “stealth denial” – they accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change but feel they are not part of the problem or can do little about it. This perhaps explains why 73% (according to WWF’s poll) feel political leaders do not focus on the environment enough and 72% want the government to put more emphasis on green energy and carbon reductions.
This passing of the buck can extend to businesses, of course. Without clear policies in place, investors remain cautious – the catastrophic events surrounding the incentives for solar power back in 2011 are an obvious case in point. But recent stories relating to “cutting the green crap” and caps on onshore wind have done little to encourage businesses to put their money where the “greenest government ever’s” mouth is.
This isn’t an excuse for inaction, however, and the pioneers of green business have long argued that being climate smart is an environmentally and economically sustainable approach to doing business.
Businesses realise that climate change is a risk to their business and they will have to adapt – none more so than those in the food sector. The IPCC concluded with “high confidence” in its report that “based on studies covering a wide range of regions and crops, negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts”.
It was even more confident that the effects of recent climate-related extremes, such as the floods in south-west England, reveal “significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability”, and that these events can result in the “disruption of food supply”.
The effects of climate change on agriculture have been one of the more controversial aspects of the study, prompting one of the authors to ask for his name to be removed from the summary. Richard Tol, a professor of economics at the University of Sussex, suggested that the drafts had become “too alarmist” and he wanted more focus on opportunities in a document he believed was becoming saturated by risks (the word was actually mentioned 230 times in the summary alone, up from 40 times six years ago, according to the Red Cross).
The public spat between scientists that ensued has attracted widespread media attention, and has certainly softened the “jolt” that the IPCC’s chairman had been looking for. Whether it would ever have been enough to wake up the political system and make the world respond, as Kerry put it, is debatable.
In the past two decades of IPCC reporting, the annual greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels have risen 60% to 36 billion tonnes a year. As heavy and shocking as they are, the reports don’t appear to be working.