Soap Opera Climate Politics

  • Date: 31/03/14
  • Walter Russell Mead, The American Interest

The message is clear: If you stray from the herd, prepare to be cleaved off.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the world’s foremost authority on the tricky subject of climate science, and its latest report paints a very bleak picture. This release is the second of a four-part series aimed at helping policymakers understand the various risks associated with climate change. The first edition,released last fall, bumped up the probability that humans are the main cause of recent warming to 95 percent, a reflection of the coalescing consensus among climate scientists of our culpability. Now, the IPCC is moving on from causes to effects, listing the various dangers we could face in the warmer years ahead: droughts and floods, heat waves and abnormally cold weather, rising sea levels, and lower crop yields. In short, very scary stuff.

But, as so often seems to be the case with these reports, there’s a fly in the ointment. A leading climate researcher, concerned that the report’s summary overstated the hazards, pulled out of the report just days before its release. The FT reports:

[Professor Richard Tol of the University of Sussex] revealed last week that he had asked for his name to be removed from the study’s summary—the most widely read section of the IPCC report—because he believed it was too “alarmist” and included “silly” statements about the vulnerability of people in war zones to climate change. [...]

An early draft of the summary last week, partly drawn from Prof Tol’s chapter, had said that if global temperatures rose 2.5 degrees Centigrade, it could lead to losses of 0.2-2 per cent of world gross domestic product. Some economists believe that warming would actually have a far greater impact and the final summary reflects this uncertainty more fully.

In response, Professor Chris Field, the co-chair of the group that published the report, had this to say: “Richard Tol is a wonderful scientist but he’s not at the centre of the thinking. He’s kind of out on the fringe.” The message here is clear: If you stray from the herd, prepare to be cleaved off.

This is more than just quibbling over tenths of degrees. As Tol describes it, the last-minute editorializing in this report is part of a broader battle over the role that growth and development has to play in mitigating and adapting to climate change: “I really liked the first draft of the summary for policy makers because it had development at its core…Many impacts of climate change are really symptoms of underdevelopment and poor management. That was the ‘consensus’ among authors then, and I don’t think anyone has changed his mind. Chris Field has led the message away from that, which I think is a mistake.”

Growth and sustainability aren’t, by nature (excuse the pun), mutually exclusive. In fact, green schemes work best when the two goals are pursued together, if only because the growth imperative is already so ingrained in the global economy. In that context, Tol’s point about the possible environmental benefits development entails is well taken.

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