The IPCC's latest assessment is frightening... but it's also bolstering the claims of deniers.
In its strongest language yet, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) affirmed on Friday that humans are responsible for the warming of the planet. This is the gist of the IPCC's latest assessment, which draws on the research of thousands of scientists to analyze the causes and consequences of global climate change.
In its first comprehensive report since winning a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, the IPCC is unequivocal about the influence of human activity, the progressive warming of the planet, the melting of the polar ice caps, and the rise in sea level. For the first time, the panel has also set a carbon emissions limit beyond which climate change will be unpreventable. If current trends continue, we are set to reach that point around 2040.
Reading the IPCC's press release, headline statements, or much of the media coverage of the subject, it's clear the situation is more dire than ever before. "UN climate change report points blame at humans," CNN announces. The site's lead story, "A town that's melting," drives the message home. The key findings are alarming.
But that's not what climate skeptics are seeing. For them, the story here isn't the renewed certainty of climate change, but the IPCC's inability to explain a pause in global temperature rise. "Temperatures Aren't Expected to Rise as Quickly as Previously Thought," reads the sub-head of the Wall Street Journal's report.
Here's Fox News: "The planet has largely stopped warming over the past 15 years, data shows -- and a landmark report released Friday by the U.N.'s climate group could not explain why the Mercury had stopped rising."
This contrasting reception of the IPCC report is important, though not because it reveals the editorial priorities of the few media outlets that remain committed to climate skepticism. Rather, it illustrates the extent to which people will draw different conclusions from the same report.
This chart from the IPCC's fifth assessment, released Friday, shows warming over the last century, distributed across the globe.
Most of us will walk away from the latest IPCC assessment more certain than ever of the need for action on greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention adaptive measures like dunes, dikes, and sea walls to fight rising seas. But we should realize that many of our compatriots won't see it that way.
It's true that the issue in question, a current lull in the global temperature increase, has puzzled scientists. But it is only a small piece of the evidence that includes record CO2 levels, rapidly shrinking ice caps, warmer oceans, and rising seas. Most scientists consider it a blip in a much larger warming trend.
And yet, in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, and elsewhere, this newest assessment has marked an opportunity to voice more skepticism about climate change. And the IPCC seems to have responded to past criticisms by allowing for a little more leeway in its claims.
The New York Times writes that the authors, according to other climate scientists, "had made a series of cautious choices in their assessment of scientific evidence," at least in part to avoid looking like the boy who cried wolf. One of the claims of the most recent assessment before this one, that the Himalayan glaciers were set to disappear within 40 years, has since been retracted, and skeptics have seized upon such predictive errors to invalidate the IPCC's findings entirely.
In the current assessment, the IPCC lowers the bottom-end estimate of long-term temperature increase if CO2 levels double to 2.7 degrees, down from 3.6. Though numerous peer-reviewed papers have suggested a worst-case scenario sea level rise of five feet or more, the report cites a maximum rise of three feet. Striking the right balance of alarm and caution kept the authors of the report up until 2 a.m. this week, the Independent reports, and many feel the final product errs on the side of conservatism.
These modifications do not detract from the report's central conclusion: that climate change is real, man-made, and causing irreparable damage to the earth.
But they open the window for skepticism a little wider. It's not just that the more frightening evidence is failing to make an impression. In some circles, the assessment released today is an indication that the wave of global warming alarm has crested and receded.