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IPCC, AAS, NAS, Royal Society, Pentagon & USGCRP reports: Is it possible to have too much information about climate change?

May 9, 2014

It’s a brave and foolhardy businessman who ignores instability when it infiltrates all our planning, borrowing, growth and analysis. Equally, those who ignore the risks and costs of global warming are surely in for a shock – and sooner rather than later. It seems increasingly improbable that anyone could still be denying the gravity of our situation, given the wealth of information we now have about it.

In a raft of reports released over the last few months, there is so little room for doubt it makes climate change denial seem not just irresponsible, but plainly irrational. In February the UK’s Royal Society (RS) and the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) jointly issued a report (Climate change: Evidence & Causes) bearing messages that would be repeated weeks later in an initiative from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), aiming to ‘expand the dialogue on the risks of climate change’. The core message, covering climate change science, the effects and the risks, is summarised in the report, called “What We Know”.

“We’re the largest general scientific society in the world, and therefore we believe we have an obligation to inform the public and policymakers about what science is showing about any issue in modern life, and climate is a particularly pressing one,” said Dr. Alan Leshner, CEO of AAAS. “As the voice of the scientific community, we need to share what we know and bring policymakers to the table to discuss how to deal with the issue.”

With commendable foresight, the AAAS recruited Bob Litterman, former Goldman & Sachs Co. executive and senior partner at Kepos Capital, to participate in discussions with the panel on how to measure climate-related risks in the context of the need for a common language that talks about climate change through the lens of risk management.

“Scientists have developed a solid understanding of how the climate is responding to the build-up of greenhouse gases, but they recognize the considerable uncertainty about the long-run impacts — especially potential economic damages. Economists understand how to create incentives to limit pollution production with maximum effect and minimum collateral damage, but crafting the appropriate response is a complex valuation process that requires quantifying those same uncertainties,” Litterman said. “To do so requires scientists and economists to work together, ask tough questions, and break the boundaries of their professional silos. That’s what’s this initiative aims to do.”

The report is as concise as the title is unequivocal. Short and to the point, AAAS’s unapologetic confidence reflects the 97% consensus among climate scientists that we’re now heating up the planet.

The sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost

This same set of messages was repeated in the IPCC reports that followed those from the RS/NAS and the AAAS. Following on from the Working Group (WG) 1 report – ‘The Physical Science Basis’, published in September 2013, as their titles make clear, the next two reports dealt less with the science, and considerably more with the impacts of climate change: WG II – ‘Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’, and WG III – ‘Mitigation of Climate Change’.

If you’ve been following the science, there’s not much in either IPCC report that’s novel. In truth, the most apposite summary of all the reports came from fellow Guardian blogger Graham Readfern in a pithy piece entitled ‘The hellish monotony of 25 years of IPCC climate change warnings’. With not a little irony, he lists a number of dire topical prognoses – which he then points out were taken not from the current reports, but from the first IPCC report back in 1990, the year that Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web, and Nelson Mandela got out of jail. The same warnings of course all appear in the latest reports, without some of the equivocation the earlier work contained, back when people thought the science would be enough to convince governments to act. Ah, how naïve we were.

In the AAAS report, there’s a section about risk management which opens with a plainly stated message about making decisions on how to meet ‘the challenge of climate change’:

“We urge that these decisions be guided by two inescapable facts: first, the effects of any additional CO2 emissions will last for centuries; second, there is a risk of abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes in the Earth’s climate system with massively disruptive impacts”.

Inescapable facts. How many more of them do we need to catalyse meaningful action? This month the USGCRP released their 840 page National Climate Assessment, this time detailing not just future impacts, but making clear that climate change was here and now – a point reinforced by the map showing all too clearly how much the US has already warmed up.

Climate Chage in the US : map shows temperature increase

Courtesy the U.S. Global Change Research Program


We now have an overwhelming amount of credible information on threats from global warming. These threats are so profuse, so ubiquitous that to ignore them, to fail to plan for climate impacts is about as far sighted as asking if this ‘internet thing’ is going to take off – a credible question in 1990 when the first IPCC report came out, but roughly as incredible as the same questions asked about climate change now.

Yet only this week, while the Guardian reports that, “Lloyd’s of London, the world’s oldest and biggest insurance market, has for the first time called on insurers to incorporate climate change into their models”, it also reports that the Australian state of Queensland “has given its approval for an Indian conglomerate to build one of the world’s biggest coal mines, despite fears that an associated port development could damage the Great Barrier Reef”.

The facts are inescapable, and we’re hardly short of good, reliable information, so there’s no excuse now for inaction (or for investments in projects that will doom us all). Neither do we need to get caught up in the ideological debate. If you want a good, solid, non-partisan appraisal of the risks we’re all exposed to, and the host of reports mentioned are somehow insufficient, then read yet another document published this year: the Quadrennial Defense Review 2014, the Pentagon’s latest report on the issue, in which they describe climate change as ‘a threat multiplier’. They say very clearly that it’s a threat to global stability and security, and I don’t believe anyone in their right mind is going to accuse them of being a bunch of leftie agitators.

Returning to my opening remarks about the costs of climate change, what the Pentagon doesn’t say, but the other reports all make clear, is that global warming is a threat to every business, no matter how big or small. It is the economics of climate change around which all dissent is manufactured. It is the costs of action versus of the costs of inaction where so much foolish rhetoric is spent, for words are indeed cheap.

Amidst all the anxiety, labouring under the sheer weight of so much evidence, so many reports, we end up asking the same question we should have asked in 1990: what can we do about any of this? We can start by refusing to be caught up in a polarised debate driven by ideology. Money acknowledges no allegiance except to itself. How we prepare to deal with increasing instability will vary, from tiny steps to large ones – each to his or her own.

No one is exempt; no one can escape the coming storm. It’ s up to us all how damaging we allow that storm to become, but the strangest paradox about the global warming debate is that many of the steps we could take to mitigate the problem, we need to take anyway in response to the speed of change in the business milieu we work in. Is there anyone who would argue that reducing energy costs is a bad thing? That being more efficient is counter-productive? That managing risk is irresponsible or that investing in ways to protect ourselves is foolish?

Our global society has risen to meet many challenges, although arguably none greater than climate change. All the reports make it clear that it’s time to demonstrate to the world what we’re really made of at our best: steely resolve, guts, energy, invention and determination, and in doing so, enjoying a good return on the investment to boot!

And if we don’t, the losses will be incalculable. Right now, we have choices we can make, based on an unparalled quality and quantity of information. The longer we wait, the less choices will be available, and the more they will cost when we eventually get round to enacting them. Surely that’s a message that everyone can understand?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. dbostrom permalink
    May 9, 2014 11:04 am

    Needs to be a blog post Skeptical Science. 🙂

  2. Graham Wayne permalink*
    May 9, 2014 12:03 pm

    Hey Doug – long time…how are you? Nice of you to pop in…and thanks for the suggestion. Everything on here is under the CC license, so I assume that if SkS ever want to repost anything, they know they’re more than welcome to do so.

  3. May 9, 2014 1:37 pm

    I agree with the sentiment that this is an excellent post deserving of wider exposure.

  4. May 9, 2014 6:16 pm

    Much talking, little acting. Headed the other way myself, talking is singularly unproductive it seems.

  5. May 15, 2014 2:57 am

    Anyone wanting to walk the talk – here’s what I’m doing: Living Sustainably!

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