A Roadmap for Survival


The latest IPCC report on climate change mitigation offers a compromised and politically biased map of the potential solutions to climate change. But it’s clear on one thing: survival requires a rapid decarbonization of energy and a massive rollback in fossil fuels. (Photo: Samira / Flickr)

Greenhouse gas emissions are rising, and our addiction to fossil fuels is to blame.

That, in a nutshell, is the conclusion of an authoritative new UN report published on April 13th. Emissions have not only continued to increase, but have done so more rapidly in the last 10 years. While the growing reliance on coal for global energy supplies is chiefly to blame for the latest increase, the broader picture is that “economic growth has outpaced emissions reductions.”

The new report, entitled Mitigation of Climate Change, is the third in a series of blockbuster surveys from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body tasked with reviewing the work of thousands of scientists and experts to establish the “current state of knowledge” on climate change and its impacts. The first report—The Physical Science Basis—once again established with overwhelming certainty that the climate is changing and greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans are primarily responsible. The second report—Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability—warned that climate change would have a catastrophic impact on food supplies, hitting the world’s poorest people the hardest. It also documented the increased risks posed by floods, droughts, and damaged ecosystems as a result of climate change. The mitigation report models scenarios for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A final synthesis of all three elements will be released in October.

The IPCC is not tasked with recommending what should happen next, but it maps out the terrain upon which the battles over what should be done are fought. A full “underlying” report, running to a thousand pages, is prefaced with a 30-page “policymakers’ summary” written in often impenetrable bureaucratic jargon. That’s a result of how the IPCC works: hundreds of authors (272 on the mitigation report alone) review thousands of scientific papers to produce the underlying report, and then representatives of the 195 governments that participate in the IPCC are asked to approve the summary report line by line.

It’s a wonder that anything manages to emerge from this labyrinthine operation, and it’s to the credit of the many authors that they have managed to clearly chart some of the contours of the challenge we face in addressing climate change. The results are clearest in the case of fossil fuels, with the IPCC mitigation report making perfectly clear that we cannot continue to rely on coal, oil, and (over the long term, at least) gas and expect to avert dangerous climate change.

Almost half of the increase in greenhouse gas emissions between 2000 and 2010 came from the energy supply sector, with a greater reliance on coal chiefly to blame. Continuing on this course would lead to a rise of up to 5°C (compared to pre-industrial levels) by the end of the century, with disastrous consequences. Averting this catastrophe requires a rapid “decarbonization” of electricity generation and a reduction in subsidies for fossil fuels, alongside measures to soften the impacts of these changes on poor and vulnerable populations. The report also provides succor to proponents of fossil fuel divestment, noting that “mitigation policy could devalue fossil fuel assets and reduce revenues for fossil fuel exporters.”

At its best, the IPCC report can help us to refocus attention on the practical measures that can make a real difference in addressing climate change. In an insightful section on urbanization and buildings, for example, the report lays out the important role that can be played by tougher codes on the construction of new buildings, regulations to retrofit existing ones, the importance of expanding public transport and encouraging “modal shifts” away from cars and planes, and city planning that avoids urban sprawl.

The IPCC’s overview is more problematic on issues that are more politically contentious, however—notably on how and when to replace fossil fuels. Natural gas power generation is referred to as a potential “bridge technology,” a conclusion that reflects linear thinking about how emissions might decline, but ignores more sophisticated modeling (from MIT, among other institutions) showing how investments in gas displace renewable energy and increase greenhouse gas emissions. Elsewhere in the report, in fact, there is a clear warning that “infrastructure developments and long-lived products that lock societies into GHG-intensive emissions pathways may be difficult or very costly to change.” That must surely include new gas power plants, although the compromises reached in constructing the IPCC summary don’t give space for further dialogue on the matter.

The IPCC’s take on other energy generation options is similarly hedged. The report notes that renewable energy technologies “have achieved a level of maturity to enable deployment at significant scale.” But nuclear power and “carbon capture and storage” (CCS) from fossil fuel plants are presented as having potential, albeit with greater caution about their respective safety, storage, waste issues, and costs. That is not so much a neutral expert view on the future of energy generation as it is a reflection of the influence of large private and state-owned utilities in shaping the agenda on these issues. Much of the research the IPCC reviews, after all, is funded by large energy utilities or government research councils that reflect their agenda, and its findings are ultimately reviewed by governments that own (or are heavily lobbied by) the large fossil fuel and nuclear companies. The IPCC reflects the balance of power in struggles over energy. But the battle for clean, renewable energy is happening elsewhere.

The IPCC summary report is also selective in how it treats the global distribution of emissions. Glen Peters, a University of Oslo academic who studies how emissions relate to consumption patterns, took to Twitter to note that “All material on consumption-based emissions and embodied (outsourced) emissions [were] removed” from the summary.

Significant compromises can be seen where international negotiating positions are at stake. With a new global climate treaty expected in 2015, the working group on mitigation was fraught with arguments on how to frame the responsibility for taking global action. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), under the auspices of which a new global climate treaty will be devised, is clear that cumulative greenhouse gas emissions are primarily the responsibility of industrialized countries. That same group of countries (which includes the United States, the EU, Canada, Japan, Australia, and a handful of others) has the greatest capacity to act to reduce their own emissions, and should also provide the transfers of finance and technology needed to help the rest of the world reduce its emissions.

The IPCC summary report is broadly in keeping with the UNFCCC framework. It reaffirms the importance of “sustainable development and equity” as the basis for climate policy assessments. The former aspect is essential for developing countries, which argue that climate action should not compromise efforts to reduce poverty or improve healthcare, education, and other services. In this regard, the IPCC notes that “most mitigation has considerable and diverse co-benefits”: reducing emissions can cut air pollution, for example, while renewables can enhance energy security. The controversies are greater on how “equity” is defined, but here the IPCC report clearly references “past and future” contributions, which gives lie to the notion often promoted by U.S. policymakers that only current and future comparisons with competitors like China should be taken into account.

But matters get more controversial in relation to the underlying report and an accompanying “technical summary,” which is peppered with references to “high income countries,” “upper middle-income countries,” “lower middle-income countries,” and “low income countries”—a differentiation that conflicts with how the UNFCCC divides the world. Those divisions, translated into the arena of climate diplomacy, are viewed as an attempt to divide up developing countries in a way that undermines the UNFCCC and opens up key issues of responsibility (and financial or technology transfers) for renegotiation. This resulted in a series of formal objections to the report from, among others, Bolivia, Saudi Arabia, India, the Maldives, Venezuela, Malaysia, and Egypt.

More generally, the IPCC’s scenarios for how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions betray a strong Western bias in the report. After all, 70 percent of its authors are from the developed world, and it relies heavily on literature published in developed countries. Negotiations are underway on how to reform the IPCC to better reflect the breadth of global knowledge, but unless academic agendas become less parochial—which starts with research funding at the national level, potentially provided by financial transfers facilitated by an international climate agreement—progress on this aspect is unlikely to happen soon.

Until that time, the IPCC will remain far from perfect. The latest report on mitigation is a clear illustration, offering a partial, compromised, and politically biased map of the potential solutions to climate change. But it remains the most comprehensive map that’s available to us—one that, for all its flaws, codifies the fundamental importance of cutting our addiction to fossil fuels if we’re to have any chance of avoiding a climate catastrophe.

Oscar Reyes, an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, helped launch climatemarkets.org.

  • serious joe

    The IPCC report isn’t worth a minute of your time. Rather than discuss the science, which will make your eyes glaze and then shut, consider what the IPCC really is.

    The IPCC was formed in 1988, to assess “the scientific, technical and socioeconomic information relevant for the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change.” It was founded on the assumption of “human-induced climate change”. There was never an attempt to evaluate the scientific evidence. There will never be a conclusion, from the IPCC, that mankind is not responsible – it isn’t in their charter. It is a foregone conclusion that man is responsible, and that is incorporated into the documents that founded the IPCC in the first place. The IPCC is, first and foremost, a UN bureaucracy. Since it is the nature of bureaucracies to pursue their own agendas, science has never been the driving force at the IPCC. The IPCC is a case study in how a UN body took a particular set of political and philosophical beliefs about humanity’s interaction with the environment – and dressed them up as science.

    Maurice Strong established the IPCC through the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) so that all participants were bureaucrats or selected by bureaucrats. As Richard Lindzen explained, “IPCC’s emphasis, however, isn’t on getting qualified scientists, but on getting representatives from over 100 countries. The truth is, only a handful of countries do [good] quality climate research. Most of the so-called experts serve, merely to pad the numbers.”

    “It is no small matter that routine weather service functionaries from New Zealand to Tanzania are referred to as ‘the world’s leading climate scientists.’ It should come as no surprise that they will be determinedly supportive of the process.”

  • serious joe

    Let’s look into the attitudes of the folks who wrote the IPCC reports. Let’s show their bias, their deceit, by using their own words:

    Stephen H. Schneider, a lead author for three, count them, three IPCC “the sky is falling” reports , Prof., Dept. of Biological Sciences and Sr. Fellow Inst. for International Studies, Stanford University, wrote a paper with Rasool, published in the journal, Science, in 1971. It concluded with the scary scenario, (and a few caveats, of course) “our calculations suggest a decrease in global temperature by as much as 3.5°C … in the average temperature of Earth, … believed to be sufficient to trigger an ice age.”

    Global COOLING. Get that? He was all into the coming ice age, in the seventies.

    In The Genesis Strategy (1976), he cried, “wolf”, again, because of global cooling. He advocated that government leaders should act now, making little mention of any doubts, while chiding skepticism: ” …nor does political action require knowledge of the exact location of each tree behind which a wolf may be hiding.” Somewhere along the line, his Chicken Little cries became scary scenarios that were all about Global Warming. He applied his BS in Mechanical Engineering, and his PhD in Mechanical Engineering and Plasma Physics, as a lead author for three, count them, three IPCC “the sky is falling” reports. Miffed about being misquoted from an interview published in Discover magazine, pages. 45-48, October, 1989 where he was accused of saying “Scientists should consider stretching the truth”, Schneider laid it all out in APS News August/September 1996 (Volume 5, Number 8) where he said:

    “”On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both… I disapprove of the “ends justify the means” philosophy of which I am accused, but, in fact have actively campaigned against it in myriad speeches and writings. Instead, I repeatedly advocate that scientists explicitly warn their audiences that “what to do” is a value choice as opposed to “what can happen” and “what are the odds,” which are scientific issues. … Vested interests have repeatedly claimed I advocate exaggerating threats. Their “evidence” comes from partially quoting my Discover interview, almost always -like [Julian] Simon – omitting “I hope that means being both” and the “double ethical bind” phrase.”

    Didn’t he just say, “Scientists should consider stretching the truth”, but without the quotation marks? How does the inclusion of the phrase, “double ethical bind” excuse him? It seems quite clear that he advocates “exaggerating science to enhance the appearance of environmental threats” . What are “vested interests”, anyway? Were the Koch Brothers active in 1989?

    Why should anyone believe this guy, who goes from global cooling to global warming, all the while screaming, “the sky is falling, the sky is falling” … and then he advocates that scientists should lie “for the cause” …

  • serious joe

    Doctor Daniel Botkin is actually a “good guy” – he’s a “lukewarmer” – a scientist who thinks things aren’t as bad as the IPCC suggests, but they’re still a bit bad… Here, Dr. Botkin warns us of an attitude he observed in his fellow scientists… an attitude that suggests that, it is okay to lie, if it is “for the cause”:

    Daniel B Botkin, PhD: 17Oct2007, WSJ Online, “Global Warming Delusions”: Without naming names, Mr. Botkin, president of the Center for the Study of the Environment and professor emeritus in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, lamented,

    “Some colleagues, who share some of my doubts, argue that the only way to get our society to change is to frighten people with the possibility of a catastrophe, and that therefore it is all right, and even necessary, for scientists to exaggerate. They tell me that my belief in open and honest assessment is naïve. “Wolves deceive their prey, don’t they?” one said to me recently. Therefore, biologically, he said, we are justified in exaggerating to get society to change.”

    “The climate modelers who developed the computer programs that are being used to forecast climate change used to readily admit that the models were crude and not very realistic, but were the best that could be done, with available computers and programming methods. They said our options were to either believe those crude models or believe the opinions of experienced, data-focused scientists. Having done a great deal of computer modeling myself, I appreciated their acknowledgment of the limits of their methods. But I hear no such statements today. Oddly, the forecasts of computer models have become our new reality, while facts … are pushed aside, as if they were not our reality.”

    There you have it – the models that the IPCC uses were, at one time, recognized as models… but now, they are reality, hard as stone…

  • serious joe

    You can’t trust these people. They’ll do anything “for the cause”. This isn’t science anymore, it is activism.

    Rod Lamberts: Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science at Australian National University: “What we need now, is to become comfortable with the idea that the ends will justify the means.”

  • serious joe

    I’m not a climate scientist, I’m an engineer. We’re better at seeing reality. One meteorologist said that students (of meteorology) who couldn’t make it in weather forecasting, changed over to climate science… and most of the IPCC is not even made up from climate scientists…

    German meteorologist Klaus Eckert Puls: “Ten years ago, I simply parroted what the IPCC told us. One day, I started checking the facts and data – first I started with a sense of doubt, but then I became outraged, when I discovered that much of what the IPCC and the media were telling us was sheer nonsense, and was not even supported by any scientific facts and measurements. To this day, I still feel shame, that as a scientist, I made presentations of their science, without first checking it.”

  • serious joe

    …The IPCC is all about computerized prediction of the future. Those computer programs – General Circulation Models (GCM) suffer from gigo’s law: Garbage in, Garbage out. Here are what some of the movers and shakers in the GCM world have to say about them:

    David Frame, climate model designer, Oxford University: “Rather than seeing models as describing literal truth, we ought to see them as convenient fictions which try to provide something useful.”

    One of Canada’s top climate modellers said in private communications that, even though he did not believe that today’s computerized climate models made reliable forecasts, he would continue to promote them as if they did, because he thought this would encourage the expansion of nuclear electrical power generation, which he supported.

    … he’d lie “for the cause”

    Chris Folland of UK Meteorological Office: “The data don’t matter. We’re not basing our recommendations [for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions] upon the data. We’re basing them upon the climate models.”

    …The data actually say there has been no global warming for seventeen and a half years… by three different temperature data sets. See RSS (Remote Sensing Systems) at http://www.remss.com – 213 months, since August of 1996, the temperature averages to a flat line.

    Kevin Trenberth, a lead author of 2001 and 2007 IPCC report chapters, writing in a 2007 “Predictions of Climate” blog appearing in the science journal Nature.com, admitted: “None of the models used by the IPCC are initialized to the observed state, and none of the climate states in the models correspond even remotely to the current observed state”.

    …Set up the models for 1960, they cannot predict the weather or the climate for 1970. Set them up for 1970, they are wrong before you get to 1980… so why should we believe what the models say for 2020?

    …If you get into the details of what the models predict will happen, this peculiar hot-spot shows up over the equatorial regions, well up in the air. It shows up in most, if not all of the models. So we engineering types, looking for reality, we go to the equatorial regions and send up “weather balloons” to measure the hot-spot. We look for the hot-spot in satellite temperature data. Guess what? No hot-spot. The models are wrong, therefore, the IPCC is wrong. Why bother with the IPCC?

  • serious joe

    Maurice Strong, a Canadian billionaire elitist, essentially the founder and creator of the UN’s environmental bureaucracies that eventually became the IPCC member of board of the World Economic Forum; chaired the Rio Earth Summit and was the senior advisor to Kofi Annan (the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations), Maurice Strong described himself as “a socialist in ideology, a capitalist in methodology” He made his billions, mostly in the energy and fossil fuel businesses.

    Back in 1992, Maurice Strong was at the height of his immense influence in the United Nations. It was then, that Strong told a reporter about his fantasy plot, supposedly a scenario for a book, that takes place at the World Economic Forum meeting. Strong’s fantasy involves an elite group of world leaders that plan to bring about a worldwide economic collapse. He wonders aloud, “What if a small group of these world leaders were to conclude the principal risk to the earth comes from the actions of the rich countries?… ” In his book plot, the group concludes: “Isn’t the only hope for the planet that the industrialized civilizations collapse? Isn’t it our responsibility to bring this about?” “This group of world leaders forms a secret society …” continued Strong, warming to his fantasy. But, then Strong catches himself. “I probably shouldn’t be saying things like this.”

  • pascalmolineaux

    Thanks for the rticle. But I read here some comments which truly worry me. Yes you can believe it is all a well-built hoax, that the hundreds of world-renowned scitnists participating in writing the IPCC report, approved by the National Academies of Science of all the devleoped countries are all out o bring down capitalism. You can believe that. You can refuse to see the writing on the wall and ignore that there HAS BEEN a sharp increase in the frequency and strength of extreme climate events in many, many countries around the world… and refuse to take precautionary actions to switch to clean, renewable, localy produced, energy sources. Moreover, our transport systems, our agricultural systems, our manufacturing systems all have huge environmental problems, which DO threaten our common survival, even withouth the certainty of human-induced global climate change. As we run out of easily accessible fossil fuels, we now turn to extreme fossil fuel sources which cause enormous environmental havoc: mountain-top removal (how stupid can you get?), Fracking and Tar Sands, Deep Sea and Arctic drilling… the local impacts of such extreme fossil fuel exploitation SHOULD on their own condemn them. Their decisive contribution to increased CO2 concentrations in the upper atmosphere is also damning. We certainly can do better than this. We are addicted to energy-intensive fossil fuels and have developed manufacturing, agricultural and transport systems which are EXTRAORDINARILY wasteful and irresponsible. Time to grow and assume responsibly our common future and be energy-responsible.