top of page

The Warnings are Clear

Governments quarrel about the wording of the IPCC's dire alerts they don’t listen to


CONTINUED GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS will lead to increasing global warming, with the best estimate of reaching 1.5°C in the near term in considered scenarios and modelled pathways. Every increment of global warming will intensify multiple and concurrent hazards. Deep, rapid and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions would lead to a discernible slowdown in global warming within around two decades, and also to discernible changes in atmospheric composition within a few years.’ Signed: the world’s leading experts on climate.

In its sixth Assessment Report, recently unveiled, the IPCC has once again raised the bar for its concerns. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, established by the United Nations in 1988 and recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, has published one of these assessments every five to seven years, each exhibiting a growing sense of concern. Comprised of hundreds of scientists and dozens of research centres, the IPCC has traditionally been cautious in making prognoses about our planet’s fever. As a result, its reports are usually peppered with parentheses carrying a confidence rating in italics.

The opening quote above is marked ‘high confidence.’ This is another way to say that it will be nearly impossible to keep the historical temperature increase below the famous 1.5°C threshold in the Paris Agreement. Every 0.1°C above that, a worsening of extreme-weather events is to be expected. However, with ‘deep, rapid, and sustained’ emission cuts, the warming would slow down within 20 years.

Other short-term predictions include the following:

• Increases in climate hazards (medium to high confidence, depending on region and hazard).

Flooding in coastal and other low-lying cities and regions (high confidence).

• A decrease in food production in some regions (high confidence).

• An increase in frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation (high confidence) that will magnify rain-generated local flooding (medium confidence).

It’s over the long term that the IPCC’s prudent evaluations get dire. First, with further warming, ‘climate change risks will become increasingly complex and more difficult to manage’. Second, the chance of triggering nasty feedbacks will grow: ‘Multiple climatic and non-climatic risk drivers will interact, resulting in compounding overall risk and risks cascading across sectors and regions,’ the Summary for Policymakers reads. For example, climate-driven food insecurity and supply instability are projected to increase with mounting warming.

There is a surreal side to these assessments. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is, well, intergovernmental. This means that the all of the 195 participating governments have the right to put their fingers in the works. In particular, the Summary for Policymakers – the introduction to every Assessment Report – is regularly discussed, battled over and often redacted by representatives of those 195 governments. In the past, I have covered four presentations of IPCC reports, and every time there was some 11th-hour bargaining over nouns and adjectives. It happened again in late March in Switzerland. In the end, however, a final text was agreed upon.

It’s the same with the text quoted above. Signed by science and countersigned by the world’s governments, it declares that anthropogenic climate change is a harsh reality that will endanger life on Earth and that time is running out to prevent runaway consequences and yet a series of immediate actions will alleviate the risks with time.

It’s most likely (high confidence) that the prospect of witnessing the results of today’s investments will come two decades later. That may not be appealing to most governments; depending on the country, that timeframe equates to three to five electoral cycles. That being said, why should they quarrel about the wording of warnings they don’t listen to? It remains a mystery.

Published on the May 2023 issue of Geographical Magazine


bottom of page