Why August 9 is a great day for climate action

For climatologists – and anyone who cares about the planet – August 9 is the date they’ve been waiting for eight years.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) will publish a comprehensive and massive report combining the best and latest climate science from around the world, its first since 2014. This planetary health check will set the stage for the summit crucial UN climate change meeting in Glasgow in November. Let’s explain why this is such a big deal.

Why the big accumulation?

We all – including governments, boards and businesses – make decisions about how to prepare for climate change. Is it a good idea to buy this coastal dream home? Will my crop be safe from drought? Does this apartment need air conditioning? Is this a good place for a stadium?

But the main source of evidence for these decisions – the IPCC reports – are painfully slowly updated, even though climate science is being updated all the time.

There is a good reason for the slow pace. The reports require the cooperation of hundreds of scientists, drawing on a globe’s worth of published research. The process works by consensus and involves many overlaps. Writers don’t get paid and have to adapt their late-night Zoom readings, reviews, debates, and meetings to other full-time jobs.

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To help fill the gap between reports, the IPCC has released interim reports since the last full version, including its report on the importance of trying to stay inside the 1.5 ° C heater. This has pushed governments including New Zealand to commit to a 1.5 ° C target. In 2018, Christchurch hosted an authors meeting for another interim report, on food and land.

But the full, slow-cooked report is considered the most authoritative. The next one, scheduled for August 9, will be the first in a series of three – and the first clues suggest the news could be bleak, even by climate change standards.

The first segment in August will cover the source of the problem, or what our greenhouse gases are doing physically to the planet. The second, scheduled for February 2022, will describe the impacts on us, the people and the species we share the Earth with. The third, scheduled for March 2022, will look at what we can do about it.

How many times have we repeated this palaver? Is anyone listening?

The clue is in the title, Evaluation Report 6 or AR6.

This is the sixth time this process has been repeated since 1988, hence the number of the working group.

Since then, the number of published research has exploded, as have greenhouse gas emissions, says New Zealander and vice-chairman of an IPCC working group, Andy Reisinger.

Each time, authors around the world look at all the studies measuring global temperatures, the greenhouse effect and the impact of a warmer climate on cities, food production, disease, the rise of the world. sea ​​level, fishing and other things.

Combining a wide range of peer-reviewed research in different fields helps eliminate bias and errors that might arise in a study. (A similar, though smaller, process of synthesizing individual medical trials is often done to determine whether a drug is effective.)

There are still differences of opinion on emerging areas of research, for example, which model best reflects the rate of melting ice caps? Solving them has been more difficult than ever, as scientists have not been able to meet personally, due to Covid. An already difficult process was made ‘more painful’ on emails, as disagreeable writers couldn’t meet for a beer afterwards and didn’t have to face each other around a table, says Dave Frame from Victoria University.

The people who contribute to the IPCC reports come from 90 countries and different backgrounds.  This image shows the Working Group II team.

Supplied / Rebecca Harris

The people who contribute to the IPCC reports come from 90 countries and different backgrounds. This image shows the Working Group II team.

As to whether anyone is listening, well, the government’s promises to reduce climate pollution are still far below what is needed to keep the heat at 1.5 ° C or even 2 ° C.

New Zealand is no exception.

But signatories to the global Paris Agreement on greenhouse gas reduction have until November to make better efforts.

That’s when a crucial UN summit will be held in Glasgow, to negotiate some of the last remaining details on how to keep us all under 1.5C or, at worst, of 2 ° C. The conference, known as COP26, was postponed for a year because of the Covid.

The UK government has been pushing for countries to do all they can.

It is hoped that the publication of this report could provide an additional incentive, highlighting the cost of failure.

Are the Kiwis involved? Are we hitting above our weight?

The writing group is made up of climatologists from academic institutes around the world, and the full list is available online.

There is a hierarchy: the Korean specialist in energy policy Hoesung Lee has been the big boss of the IPCC, alias president, since 2015. Below him are three vice-presidents, from the United States, Brazil and Mali.

The two highest ranked Australasians are Reisinger and Aussie Mark Howden, Australian National University, both climate and agricultural specialists. They are vice-presidents of two different working groups, placing them both in the governing body of the IPCC. In addition to doing his basic research, Reisinger tries to help people understand the IPCC reports by reducing them to haiku, which he posts on social media.

Each chapter of the full report has two or three coordinating lead authors (aka group leaders), plus between 10 and 15 lead authors. Two or three other scientists act as review editors. It’s perhaps no surprise that the discussions can get a little cranky: The second draft of the report we’re about to see received 51,000 review comments. Each was to receive an individual response, in writing.

New Zealand usually provides a handful of authors who are considered experts in their field. For example, James Renwick of the University of Victoria (one of our climate change commissioners) is the coordinating lead author of AR6. The same is true of Bronwyn Hayward of the University of Canterbury, who is the lead coordinating author of a chapter on cities, settlements and infrastructure. Other Kiwi authors include Harry Clark of the Climate Commission (lead author of agriculture and forestry section), Frame of Victoria University (lead author of section covering Earth’s energy budgets and climate feedbacks) and Anita Wreford of Lincoln University (senior author of the Australasia chapter.)

Once scientists have compiled their draft, the report is open to other experts and governments to provide comments.

Wait what? Why do governments have a say in a scientific report?

Fair question. The answer often given by scientists is that governments must accept and act on the results if we are to bring climate change under control.

Giving them the chance to review the project before the rest of us see it increases the chances of political membership, or so the argument goes.

Jacinda Ardern delivers the opening speech at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York.


Jacinda Ardern delivers the opening speech at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York.

And, technically, the IPCC is made up of governments – they just ask scientists to do the job.

The finished paper is a huge beast, filled with quotes, so the editors prepare a high-level summary, called a Summary for Policymakers. This is the version that is actually read by most people, including most politicians, who are interested in reports.

Over the next two weeks, government officials will meet with key scientists involved in Part 1 of AR6 to review and agree on every line of this summary.

However, Reisinger says scientists don’t let politicians make changes that aren’t true to science. “They can’t turn black into white.”

What will he say?

The authors have sworn to secrecy during the process. Renwick, however, suggests that the results will be “austere.”

One area to watch is sea level rise, where researchers have updated and compared their ice cap models.

An interim report on ice and oceans showed that scientists had become more confident in their models since 2014, enough to increase the upper limits of the Antarctic melt.

A third of the Antarctic ice sheet lies below sea level, making it vulnerable to widespread collapse as the world around it warms. The interim report stressed the need for more work to understand this risk, given that Antarctica alone could lift the sea by several meters, not to mention the melting of Greenland ice and the world’s glaciers.

Nick Golledge of the University of Victoria, who helps write the oceans section of AR6, says the differences between the ice cap models are now sufficiently well understood that AR6 is able to more clearly explain what the scientists not know the future fusion, like what elements of science are solid. “It doesn’t mean that the unknowns are gone, but we can better differentiate them. “

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