Are the Semantics of Climate Change Assessments Fooling Us?

1990.  The year Milli Vaninilli broke our hearts and Edward Scissorhands warmed them.  Nirvana had not yet released their epic sophomore album Nevermind that subsequently changed my life forever, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the very first Assessment Report on Climate Change.

The report does contain warnings about effects of climate change in its “Summary for Policymakers” section (which is great, because how many policymakers really read the whole report?), but when the document is read more thoroughly, some of the language weakens the urgency for climate change action.

For example, the “Summary for Policymakers” states with confidence that greenhouse gases “would require immediate reductions in emissions from human activities of 60% to stabilise their concentrations at today’s levels.”  However, the section on impacts to the energy sector gives an astonishingly contradictory statement.

According to this chapter, “a longer ice free season in the Arctic may facilitate shipping to oil and gas facilities . .  . and less severe cold weather conditions might result in lower costs for exploration and drilling.”  That statement seems a bit out of place.  Amidst dire warnings of the climatic perils of unabated carbon emissions in this report, there is a statement that essentially says when the Arctic melts, it will benefit the fossil fuel industry by exposing more areas for exploration and extraction.  That can only lead to more emissions.  Why is that mentioned?

I don’t think the IPCC was soft on climate change in 1990, but some of the language in this document, and even in the most recent 2014 report, is strangely passive.  It turns out there may be some truth to the suspicion that these reports are “watered down” to present a less pressing need for climate mitigation and better represent interests of countries and industries reliant on fossil fuels.

One of the authors of the 2014 Assessment has come forward and said directly that revision to the “Summary for Policymakers” section by world governments may, in fact, be “broken.”

The author, Dr. Robert N. Stavins, released a letter on his blog in April detailing his disappointment with the governmental review process and the resulting final draft of the report.  Stavins discussed the “Summary for Policymakers” approval process in his letter saying,

at the government approval sessions, in which some 195 country delegations discussed, revised, and ultimately approved (line-by-line) the “Summary for Policymakers” (SPM), which condenses more than 2,000 pages of text from 15 chapters into an SPM document of 33 pages.  Several of the CLAs present with me in Berlin commented that given the nature and outcome of the week, the resulting document should probably be called the Summary by Policymakers, rather than the Summary for Policymakers.

Do individual world governments really hold so much influence over this crucial scientific report that the language can be changed line by line to downplay the effects of rampant greenhouse gas emissions?

That thought is somewhat terrifying.  If the most highly respected and cited scientific report on climate change is edited by parties with interests in not restricting carbon emissions, then will we ever know the true ramifications of our polluted atmosphere before the climate changes enough to affect us on a large scale?

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