Crisis or catastrophe? What will the IPCC say?

In sum, the dynamics of the global coupled human-environmental system within the dominant culture precludes management for stable, sustainable pathways and promotes instability.

In other words, we’re f*cked!

That quote was from here, linked from Christopher Wright.

The quote was actually from the abstract of a sober, technical paper by geophysicist Brad Werner. The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report will also be sober and technical, based on peer reviewed literature, at least accepted for publication two to three months before the draft of each section is finalised, plus ‘grey’ material, which I take it means reliable sources such as government reports and reports prepared by or for organisations such as the International Energy Association, the World bank and our erstwhile Climate Commission.

There will be three working group reports, each with a summary for policymakers, plus a synthesis report. The working groups are:

    WG1: The Physical Science Basis
    WG2: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability
    WG3: Mitigation of Climate Change

It remains to be seen how urgent and dramatic the summaries for policymakers will be. The full import won’t be on view until the publication of WG3 in April next year, but the first should give us an idea of the seriousness of the situation.

Here’s the timetable for releasing the reports:


Here’s the site for WG1. Here’s where the Summary for Policymakers should appear on 27 September. Here are the chapter headings of the report, due on Monday:

WG1 chapters_cropped_500

Roger Jones and Celeste Young have written an excellent explainer on how to read an IPCC report, cross-posted at Roger’s place.

Two important concepts in assessing climate information are confidence and likelihood. Confidence is rated in terms of agreement (low, medium or high) and evidence (limited, medium or robust).


Likelihood is graduated according to the following scale:


There’s been a series of ‘leaks’ reported in the denialist press of what the IPCC might contain. Dana Nuccitelli there and others like Graham Readfearn have done a good job in denialist wrangling. I think now we can wait to see what the report says.

Issues I’ll be interested in include:

  • The likelihood rating given to whether humans are causing global warming. This is expected to move from “very Likely” to “extremely likely”.
  • Climate sensitivity – the temperature increase expected from a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere, and whether long-term feedbacks will be taken into account.
  • Prospective sea level rise. In 2007 there was a problem in that ice sheet decay was left out of the numerical calculation, giving an unrealistically low number which was widely quoted.
  • Expected temperature rise by 2100 under BAU
  • The conceptualisation of dangerous climate change and whether there is any change in the so-called 2C guardrail.
  • The changing pattern of extreme weather, and forecasts as to how this will change.
  • “So-called tipping points such as methane hydrate release.
  • The conceptualisation of risk and irreversibility..

Some of these may have to await later reports. I’ll be very interested in what they have to say about aerosols and clouds, and about the paleoclimate.

We should be aware that the IPCC reports are consensus statements and as such tend to be conservative. In addition, the summaries for policymakers have to pass a political as well as scientific filter. Subsequent research is likely to show climate change as more rather than less severe in its effects compared with what was expected. Newspapers, on the other hand, normally to overstate the degree of “disagreement”, and underrepresent scientific consensus.

Joe Romm made this point in 2012 and then in a long post detailed the then state of play in many sectors of climate change.

Any alarming statement will be attacked as extreme, but it is worth remembering that it’s likely to be a conservative statement, over time remaining a useful compendium of research, but increasingly out of date.

Returning to Werner’s initial quote, he was aware that scientists work within the social press of the dominant economic, political and ideological culture, one that is predicated on infinite growth in the use of non-renewable resources, and one that is seriously disturbing the continuity of ecological systems. It’s based on a capitalist system which privileges greed and is essentially predatory and expansionist in operation. In the end we’ll have to reform the system from within or break it open in order to remake it.

Also what I said here.

The IPCC report may sound alarmist in parts, but it is unlikely itself to express a call to arms which challenges or seriously disturbs the prevailing system. If it nevertheless carries the message that we are f*cked, we’d better believe it. Some say we only really concentrate the collective mind when catastrophe looms or strikes.

14 thoughts on “Crisis or catastrophe? What will the IPCC say?”

  1. And thanks for the plug. Have seen the draft and the word is the policymakers in plenary are helping to improve the language re context. This is in general a good thing.

  2. Some say we only really concentrate the collective mind when catastrophe looms or strikes.

    The current best bet would surely be that “looming” does not spur democracies (particularly corporate-marketing-trained democracies) into action. We can turn on a pin, but only choose to do so when reality smacks us very painfully in the face. With this particular crisis that will obviously be too late. A military-backed coup by technocratic ecophilosophers might give us a chance! Short of that, “we’re f*cked!” is about right.

  3. I have not much to say except: thanks, Brian. Some of my more denialist friends were getting shouty about the IPCC – I didn’t understand the fuss. Now I do.

  4. I become a denialist whenever I here something from Europe or the Royal Family members like Attenborough and human plagues. [Unacceptable sentence redacted – mod] FRIENDLY AS I am to alternative fuels etc. and sites like these,there is still something very amiss in accepting directions top down,if one thinks the IPCC is the top thinkers experts and understanders of humanity.WHEREAS sticking caps lock,from Uncensored Magazine,below the IPCC is an article from a NASA,matter. So one end of the industrial military civilized backside know what the speaking end in no known human language is actually saying?So what are you saying!? Must now go and look up some more strategically eco friendly lithium batteries in case I can power my electric E-bike up more effectively.

  5. Hi Brian thanks for this – I’ve been doing some tweeting on this again, this time for Climate and Health Alliance, so been trying to keep up – although its difficult. There’s been a barrage of information, including all the pre- release information and then of course there will be more on Monday, so you get the big Information Age question: what of all this is significant? Several well informed people have suggested the ‘carbon budget’ is – it can really help with planning and strategic thinking on the issue.

    Fiona Harvey in the Guardian discusses the carbon budget in her article We will get more info about action in coming reports of course but I think the carbon budget is already a useful idea for thinking constructively about what we need to do.

    i hope we’re not f*cked yet, though i do fear for the Pacific islands. We certainly need to get a bloody move on!

  6. Thanks for the link, Val. We’ve been talking about the budget approach for a while now. For example this post from January 2011, which was a repost and update of one I did in November 2009:

    Climate crunch: the fierce urgency of now .

    Then in May 2011 there was:

    Climate crunch time arrives.

    Earlier in May 2009 the post Climate crunch which linked to a special addition of Nature where I think an early version of the Potsdam climate budget approach was outlined.

    I’m doing a new post trying to identify some of the important concepts in the current report. Meanwhile I did hear somewhere that 10% pa reduction of emissions was required, but I imagine that won’t be mentioned until the WG3 report over a year from now.

  7. @Val

    We certainly need to get a bloody move on!

    How? As far as I can gather (from a very cursory search), world annual advertising expenditure is around US$500 billion. To persuade people that economic growth shouldn’t trump all other considerations, that’s the order of marketing budget to be matched.

  8. Brian @ 10
    Thanks Brian very interesting. I had a scan of the previous posts you linked to, lot of info there – I guess you’d agree it’s good see the carbon budget formally in the IPCC reports now even though it would have been better sooner (like so much else)? I hope that Climate Change Authority is able to relate the proposed targets in their interim report to this (and of course that the report comes out and is not in any way compromised by any kind of political pressure)

    Crispin Bennett @ 11
    The field of my research is community action in the public health/ health promotion sector. Public health/health promotion does try to use ‘ social marketing’ , which I guess is similar to the approach you are talking about, but there has always also been a direct confrontation approach- eg take corporations on through regulation, legislation and fiscal measures. The biggest recent example of that is plain packaging legislation for cigarettes and there is still a big legal ruckus going on over that. Nevertheless, health is ultimately a very good ground for that approach – which is why organisations like the IPA are so keen to trivialise public health with their endless ‘nanny state’ rhetoric. There’s an ongoing debate in public health about corporations – do you work with them, do you use their methods against them (eg social marketing) or do you take them on directly? It often tends to be a mixture but I think increasingly people will call for more direct challenge of corporations’ power. The battle over fracking is one such area, and I think coal is increasingly becoming so. So I think the fact that we don’t have the same advertising budget isn’t necessarily important, particularly when the health sector becomes involved, because the health sector ultimately has a lot of social and political influence.

  9. Crispin Bennett @ 11
    Just realised my response was only to part of your comment (advertising) but you were also talking about growth. The ideology of growth is of course also related to capitalism but goes beyond just corporations – the other thing that’s needed is for social and political researchers and theorists (including progressive economists) to start really challenging the ideology of growth.

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