IPCC Report, Climate Change and Political Heat

As world leaders and policy makers begin to consider the implications of the report of the UN Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change, details have emerged regarding the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering that took place as the IPCC finalized its conclusions. The political fallout of the report is now beginning to divide the world more sharply into countries willing to commit to agreements to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and polluters who remain resistant to change.  

The IPCC concluded that it is very likely (90% certain) that the build up of heat-trapping GHG emissions is responsible for irreversible global warming. Temperatures will continue to rise by 3.2 to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, which will cause sea level rises of 7 to 23 inches – or 21 feet, if Greenland’s ice sheets melt – and more intense tropical storms and hurricanes. Other predictions include hotter days, warmer nights and extended droughts. Climate change is expected to create hundreds of millions of permanently displaced refugees. 

After the IPCC report’s release on Friday, French President Jacques Chirac called for a new world environmental body to co-ordinate efforts to mitigate climate change through binding agreements to reduce GHG emissions, among other methods. He also suggested that the agreements should be enforced and violators punished.  

“Now is not the time for half measures,” said Mr Chirac. “We are in truth on the historical doorstep of the irreversible.” Forty-five (mainly European) nations so far have expressed interest in joining the new group, although not the highest GHG emitters – the US, China and India. President Chirac suggested that such countries could face a carbon tax on exports if they continue to refuse to cap their emissions.

The politics of climate change is by no means limited to governments. One think tank with close ties to the Bush administration has offered scientists $10,000 to attack the IPCC report. The American Enterprise Institute, the ExxonMobile-funded think tank who provided the ideological basis for the US invasion of Iraq, has sent letters to scientists offering payment to those who undermine the report. The AEI’s letter claims that the IPCC is “resistant to reasonable criticism and dissent and prone to summary conclusions that are poorly supported by the analytical work”.  

However, this view does not seem supported by the intensive review process of the IPCC. In keeping with the objective to provide a consensus document on climate change for policy makers, the six-yearly reports are developed through a transparent and inclusive process. This year’s report included 800 contributors whose research was scrutinized by over 2,500 scientific reviewers before being subjected to political review. Governments around the world, including the US, were given early drafts of the report and invited to submit their comments. They also later dispatched delegations to Paris during the weeks leading up to the report’s release. A total of 113 countries signed off on the final document before its release on Friday. 

Predictably, representatives of the world’s major GHG emitters pushed for softer language in the report, while developing nations who stand to be most adversely affected by climate change pushed for stronger language that clearly states the causes and implications of climate change. Indonesia and Africa, for example, are expected to lose thousands of islands to rising sea levels within the next few decades.  

Although the US approved the document in the end, the Bush administration criticized the IPCC report on the grounds that it “tends to overstate or focus on the negative effects of climate change.” The US lobbied hard for the language of the report to be watered down to minimize the role of GHG emissions in climate change and the role of global warming in changes such as the intensification of hurricanes. The US also objects to the IPCC’s position that one of the fundamental weaknesses of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol has been its non-ratification by major GHG emitters such as the US. The Bush administration withdrew from Kyoto in 2001, citing the lack of limits for developing economies such as China and India, also major GHG polluters. 

On Friday, the Bush administration played down the status of the US as the world’s No. 1 polluter, responsible for 25% of all GHG emissions. “We are a small contributor when you look at the rest of the world,” said US Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. He confirmed that President Bush remains opposed to capping emissions in the US. 

Meanwhile, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Yvo de Boer, called for a summit to encourage world leaders to collaborate efforts to address global warming. He said, “The findings leave no doubt as to the dangers that mankind is facing and must be acted upon without delay.” 

Most climate change scientists agree that the worst-case, long-term scenarios can only be avoided if strong action is taken soon.

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