OPINION: Communicate both the IPCC findings and the process
Katharine Vincent is Director of Kulima Integrated Development Solutions, and a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report (IPCC AR5): Climate Change 2014, Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation*. This article was written following a panel discussion promoting the IPCC’s report and organised by the Africa Climate and Development Initiative, University of Cape Town.
On 31st March 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the second of three components of the Fifth Assessment Report. The newly released Working Group II (WGII) report considers the vulnerability and exposure of human and natural ecosystems, the observed impacts and future risks of climate change, and the potential for and limits to adaptation.
The WGII report underscores that nowhere in the world is immune to the impacts of climate change, although the nature of impacts varies depending on the nature of climate hazards, the level of exposure, and how vulnerable people and ecosystems are to that exposure. Together these three elements make up the level of risk.
On the positive side, there is more evidence than ever that adaptation is occurring, reducing the level of risk. On the negative side, if we fail to mitigate climate change by slowing our emissions of greenhouse gases, risks will increase, making adaptation more difficult and potentially impossible.
Ecosystems at particular risk include the polar regions and coral reefs. Vulnerable people are found around the world, depending on social factors such as inequality, gender, class, ethnicity, age and (dis)ability.
The IPCC has often been heralded as a unique institution that fulfils an innovative mandate – over 300 Lead Authors and a further 400 Contributing Authors in WGII assessed over 12,000 papers to produce the final scientific assessment, which extends to 2000 pages. The IPCC reports have always been mammoth efforts but the growth in literature on vulnerability, impacts and adaptation explains why AR5 is so voluminous.
Each working group also produces a technical summary and a Summary for Policymakers (SPM) – the text of the latter is negotiated with the IPCC member governments before a unanimously approved document is released. What is notable about last week’s approval process for the SPM is that no government queried the underlying science and the fact that climate change is occurring. This is in contrast to reports released over the previous 20+ years. Instead the focus was on ensuring that the SPM accurately reflected levels of risk. In that sense, the IPCC has come a long way over its short history.
IPCC reports have always followed the same mandate in production: they are to be policy relevant, not policy prescriptive. How the findings of the assessment are used depends on policy-makers around the world working at local and national level; and also negotiators shaping the future of the international climate change regime through the UNFCCC.
During a recent panel discussion with fellow WGII authors at the University of Cape Town, it struck me that the IPCC process for producing the assessment reports remains a ‘black box’ for many outsiders. Many questions to the panel were concerned with the purpose and potential use of the report which highlighted misunderstandings on its mandate and process of creation. In communicating the findings of the AR5, and their implications for policy and practical actions, we should not neglect to include critical discussions on the purpose, history, and institutional structure of the IPCC as well as the process for creating the assessment reports and how these may be improved.
Lastly, much has been made of the international policy process, most notably the UNFCCC, and the imperative for ambitious commitments at COP21 in Paris next year. But what happens globally is very far removed from what happens on the ground.
We need to focus on learning from positive examples of autonomous adaptation on the ground and ensure that local and national policies are coordinated and support such initiatives. The solution space also highlights opportunities for the involvement of the private sector and climate-resilient development pathways that consider potential co-benefits of adaptation and mitigation.
In terms of how far we have to go – there is still a long way before every ecosystem and society is resilient and adaptive. But whether we get there, and how quickly, is completely within our hands.
- Video on the Working Group II Contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report
*Katharine Vincent is a lead author of Chapter 9 and the Technical Summary, and a contributing author of Chapter 22 of the IPCC WGII’s report. Katharine acknowledges her fellow South African authors (Bruce Hewitson, Guy Midgley, Debra Roberts, Penny Urquhart and Coleen Vogel) for contributing to the opinions expressed here.
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