Bracing for impact

At the end of this week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is due to release the first part of its 5th Assessment Report, which will cover the science behind the climate change issue. Arguably this is the most important part of the whole 5th Assessment process in that it lays out the foundation for all that is to follow. It is also the foundation document for government policy approaches on climate, UNFCCC collective action and public perception and understanding of the climate issue.

Early versions of the report have been widely leaked and discussed at length on line and in recent weeks more and more media stories have been appearing arguing the pros and cons of the current scientific process. Claims of errors abound, such as this story in the UK Daily Express. Much attention is being paid to the recent “hiatus” in global temperatures, even as CO2 levels continue to rise. This is claimed by some as grounds for dismissing the entire warming hypothesis. Unfortunately such calls trivialize a complex issue and simply seek to shed doubt on a global issue that needs continued attention.

As the 5th Assessment Report arrives, we shouldn’t forget that the role that CO2 plays in regulating the temperature of the planet has been well understood for over a century, the physics and chemistry that governs the behaviour of our atmosphere has been developed, built on and refined over the decades and that the impact of a shift in the level of CO2 in the atmosphere has been highlighted for more than 50 years. It’s only in the last few years as the crunch point approaches, that on-line amateurs have decided they have a valid voice in a complex area of science and therefore ought to be listened to.

Just to review a very few of the key landmarks in 120 years of careful thought, observation and analysis;

Arrhenius in 1896 – he was an early pioneer in establishing the link between atmospheric CO2 and temperature;


  Keeling in the late 1950’s established that global CO2 levels were rising sharply;


The White House  – the Johnson Administration recognised the CO2 issue in 1965; White House 1965

James Hansen in 1988 alerting the US Congress to the issue;


 Allen et. al. in 2009 defining in very clear terms how CO2 is accumulating and what the limits are; Nature Cover - Trillionth Tonne

One of the keys to public acceptance and understanding of the IPCC report will be the way in which the media report on it. As noted above, in recent weeks there has been considerable press focus on the surface temperature “hiatus”, ranging from thoughtful discussion to questionable journalism – i.e. “actually we’re cooling, claim scientists”. Earlier this week, one of Britain’s leading news organizations chose to do a preview of the Friday release of the IPCC report on the main evening television news. They explained the issue quite well, but then offered two contrasting views of the science. One was an interview with a leading UK climate scientist who is also a contributing author to the IPCC report, the other was with a blogger who lacks credible credentials and objectivity on the issue.

My take on all this is that the IPCC have a difficult time in front of them and current media practices, even from mainstream outlets, won’t really help. The public could well be left more confused than ever, despite a very clear warning in the form of the 5th Assessment Report.