The IPCC has Failed. Should it be Replaced?

By Professor X and Frank Rotering | June 15, 2018

NOTE: A well-known scientist who has strongly criticized the IPCC responded positively to my last post.  I therefore proposed a joint article that would discuss the organization’s performance.  He agreed, and I submitted the draft article below.  This was summarily rejected because, “Although I agree with much of what you say, it is put in a way that is needlessly provocative – starting with the title.”   In my view this assessment is nonsense, and indicates the reluctance of even the most critical voices to seriously consider the IPCC’s radical reform and possible replacement.

Frank Rotering

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, has frequently come under attack from those who deny the existence of climate change.  The authors are not in this group.  We fully acknowledge the problem and are strongly committed to its resolution.  We also feel that the IPCC deserves high praise for establishing the reality and gravity of climate change, and for defending these conclusions from denier assaults.

We nevertheless believe that the organization must be sharply criticized for its failure to halt or even slow the climate disaster.  As evidence of this failure, consider the following.  In the thirty years prior to the IPCC’s formation in 1988, the atmosphere’s CO2 concentration increased by an annual average of 1.2 ppm (parts per million).  In the thirty years since, this concentration increased by an annual average of 1.9 ppm.  The IPCC era has therefore seen an acceleration of almost 60% in the accumulation of the primary greenhouse gas (GHG).  If the recent annual increases of 3 ppm are repeated in future years, this acceleration will soar to an astonishing 150%.

Even more serious is the fact that the IPCC has failed to tackle the Arctic emergency.  This region is warming much faster than the global average, and its ice cover is disappearing at an alarming pace.  As a result, massive quantities of methane – a potent GHG – could soon be released from its seabeds and land-based permafrost.  We were therefore stunned when the IPCC’s latest Assessment Report, released in 2014, completely ignored the potential solutions to this ominous threat.  The Report discusses the impacts, adaptations, and vulnerabilities associated with the Arctic meltdown, but it is inexplicably silent on the measures that could halt or reverse it.

The key reasons for these failures are revealed by the title of the Report volume that discusses solutions: “The Mitigation of Climate Change”.  This title is inaccurate with respect to both the problem and its potential solutions.

Above we called the problem “climate change” because this is the familiar term, but the actual problem is unsafe GHG concentrations.  These cause not just climate change, but ocean degradation as well.  Although the climate is the first Earth system to be impacted by unsafe GHGs because of the atmosphere's relatively low mass, these impacts are not the root cause or overarching problem.  Casting the problem in this false light causes immense confusion and makes it virtually impossible to rationally address humankind’s existential challenge.

The solutions part of the title refers to mitigation, a term that requires clarification.  According to the IPCC glossary it denotes human interventions that reduce GHG sources (emissions) or enhance their sinks (natural and technical removals).  In practice, however, the term is generally restricted to reduced sources, and within this category to improved energy efficiencies.

The first objection to this solutions approach is that it ignores the IPCC’s own conclusions regarding the main drivers of GHG emissions: growing economic output and population growth.  Nowhere does the organization discuss how the reduction of these two factors could help decrease GHG emissions.  We recognize that growth and population are sensitive issues, but without a comprehensive analysis it is impossible for policymakers to consider the full range of possible measures.

The second objection to the IPCC’s mitigation approach is that it ignores the potential contributions of solar radiation management (SRM) and aggressive GHG removals.  SRM is risky and must be carefully implemented, but it could prevent a full-blown Arctic catastrophe.  Aggressive GHG removals are the only way to reduce GHG concentrations to their safe levels before tipping points are reached.  We find it deeply disturbing that the IPCC would overlook these critically important measures in their solution discussions.

In brief, our position is that the IPCC has failed to effectively address the GHG crisis for two main reasons: the root problem is misidentified as climate change, and all solution possibilities except energy efficiencies are disregarded or downplayed.

Given the calamitous consequences of this failure, we believe the time has come to consider the IPCC’s dissolution and replacement.  A plausible name for the new organization would be the GHG Crisis Panel, or GCP.  It would be charged with the objective and comprehensive analysis of both the crisis and its potential solutions.

Unlike today, governments would have no right of approval over the GCP’s summary statements.  This approval process has never made sense because there is a clear distinction between scientific analysis and the social response to it.  Governments have no legitimate role in the analysis, which means that the much-lauded “consensus” that results from the current process is a sham.  Supplanting the IPCC with the GCP would be a golden opportunity to separate these artificially combined activities.

What will the GCP do once the replacement has occurred?  In our view, an organization with the above mandate would first undertake a critical review of the terminology, assumptions, and strategic direction it has inherited from the IPCC.  When these have been corrected the GCP would propose immediate action on the Arctic emergency.  It would then establish the safe level for GHG concentrations and redefine the GHG goal from zero emissions to zero unsafe concentrations.  (For the reasons outlined here, the temperature limits of 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius would be dropped.)  It would also analyze the effects of aggressive GHG removals, reduced population, and reduced economic activities on reaching this level.

The timeframe for considering the IPCC’s replacement is a critical issue.  The biosphere continues to degrade and tipping points loom, so rapid action is required.  We therefore suggest the following approach.

The bulk of the next IPCC Assessment Report is due in 2021.  The world community, and especially the two UN bodies that created the IPCC (WMO and UNEP), should exert strong pressure on the organization to make the necessary changes and to reflect these in the 2021 Report.  If the IPCC can meet this challenge it deserves to stay.  If it can’t, then for the sake of humankind and nature it must be thanked for its service and ushered off the historical stage.

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