After spoilers and seven years of waiting since the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the full Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) was accepted and its final piece (the Synthesis Report) was approved on November 1, 2014. The Synthesis Report integrates the findings of the three 2013-2014 IPCC working group reports: physical basis for climate change; climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability; and climate change mitigation. The Synthesis Report, however, is considered the most influential part of the report for climate change negotiations. Its shorter version – 40 pages long – is written in a non-technical style to be used by policymakers and addresses policy questions, even though it does not prescribe specific policies to be adopted by governments.
The latest report is already being recognized as the most comprehensive IPCC report to date. But the news is not all good. Mother Jones listed what it considers the “most terrifying facts from the IPCC report”: human influence on climate change is clear, climate change is happening today and is going to get worse, oceans are keeping most of the heat and are turning more acidic, developing nations will be hit the hardest, and biodiversity is particularly vulnerable. However, IPCC’s conclusion does not come as a total surprise to those familiar with climate change studies. In fact, several people have come forward to critique the report as underestimating the actual severity of the situation.
But the IPCC’s latest report comes at a time when the international community could use a little help from our (scientist) friends. With the upcoming Conference of the Parties (COP) in Lima, and the roadmap to reach a post-2020 agreement in Paris next year, the strong language used in particular in the Synthesis Report could push forward the negotiations. In the words of IPCC Chairman, Mr. Rajendra. K. Pachauri, if we are aiming to keep within the 2oC increase limit, we must act now. In fact, the report affirms that if we do not change business-as-usual within the next 17 years, we are going to exceed the global carbon budget – calculated to keep us under the ‘safe level’ of 2oC increase. To avoid surpassing this number, we need to drastically reduce GHG emissions, or, as presented in the report, keep up to 86% of all proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground.
The clocking is ticking, and the message is clear. As 350.org founder Bill McKibben explains, it does not get clearer than the language used in Synthesis Report: “For scientists, conservative by nature, to use ‘serious, pervasive, and irreversible’ to describe the effects of climate falls just short of announcing that climate change will produce a zombie apocalypse plus random beheadings plus Ebola.”
The good news is that governments seem to finally understand the message. On the same day the Synthesis Report was released, the Director of White House Office of Science & Technology, Dr. John P Holdren, affirmed that the IPCC report underscores the need for “continued engagement with other countries on ambitious emissions-reductions targets and the policies and technologies necessary to achieve them.” United Kingdom Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Mr. Ed Davey, also recognized the importance of the report, stating that “we must act on climate change now.” Now we need to wait and see if the message will continue strong in the next 27 seven days for COP21. But either way, according to WMO General Secretary Mr. Michel Jarraud, “ignorance can no longer be an excuse for no action.”