In a blaze of media coverage the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been released. Well, almost. Someone in the IPCC’s PR team knows what they are about as the ‘Summary for Policymakers’ (realistically about as much as most people are going to get anywhere near reading) was released last Friday to give the editors of the Sunday papers time to organise thorough coverage and the meat of the report itself is out today.
One of the key headlines of the report is an increase in the level of confidence the human activity is affecting the world’s climate from 90 to 95% (about as much certainty as scientists are ever going to commit themselves to).
Other chilling (surely the wrong word in this context) highlights include:
1. Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.
2. Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent
3. The rate of sea level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia.
4. The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. CO2 concentrations have increased by 40% since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions and secondarily from net land use change emissions. The ocean has absorbed about 30% of the emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide, causing ocean acidification.
Those are just some snippets from the first seven pages of the summary and they paint a picture of a planet whose systems have been stressed almost to breaking point by human activity. However, the IPCC scientists cannot be accused of hysteria or doom-mongering and, whilst the situation is undeniably serious, there is still time for concerted action to allow us to avoid the worst-case scenarios.
All in all, a balanced and thorough piece of science that paints an objective, if bleak, picture of the current and likely future situation and leaves no room for doubt that urgent action is required.
The response of the UK Government’s Secretary of State for the Environment? I paraphrase here but essentially: “Look on the bright side – at least you won’t have to put the heating on so often”