The IPCC’s Disastrous Refusal to Specify Unsafe GHG Concentrations

By Frank Rotering | May 22, 2020

If you are concerned about the ecological crisis you undoubtedly know that, four decades ago, Exxon scientists warned about "potentially catastrophic events" from rising concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs).  You are presumably outraged that the corporation buried these warnings and then funded disinformation campaigns to prevent rational action.

What you very likely don't know and are not outraged about is that, 25 years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) refused to specify dangerous levels of GHG concentrations.  It then used the absence of these levels to ignore safe-concentration scenarios and to base its analysis almost exclusively on emission scenarios.  Because emissions are concentration additions, this approach was a key reason for the calamitous rise in GHG levels and thus global warming since that time.

The painful truth, therefore, is that both Exxon and the IPCC are complicit in the existential crisis we face.  However, the IPCC is the greater threat as our species contemplates its precarious future.  Unlike profit-thirsty corporations, the organization is a trusted source of climate information and strategic guidance.  If it misleads, the world is disastrously misled.  Its behavior in this matter must therefore be carefully scrutinized and ruthlessly exposed.

The story begins in 1992, when a major climate agreement called the UNFCCC committed the international community to, "... stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous ... interference with the climate system."  Four years earlier the IPCC had been established for the purpose of, "assessing the scientific information" related to climate change and "formulating realistic response strategies."  One could thus reasonably assume that the organization would study this issue carefully, identify the point of dangerous global interference, and then announce the corresponding concentration limits.

Tragically, this is not what happened.  In its second assessment report (1995) the IPCC said that determining dangerous GHG levels was a task for "policymakers" - that is, non-scientific government representatives.  It failed to explain the rationale for this assertion, simply stating that, "The task of the IPCC is to provide a sound scientific basis that would enable policymakers to better interpret dangerous ... interference with the climate system."

As noted in a book by Bert Bolin, the IPCC's first chair, the interpretation of "dangerous interference" was a hot political topic after the report was released (p. 122).  This is presumably why the IPCC in its third assessment report (2001) added several paragraphs of clarification, including these:

"Natural, technical, and social sciences can provide essential information and evidence needed for decisions on what constitutes 'dangerous anthropogenic interference' with the climate system. At the same time, such decisions are value judgments determined through socio-political processes, taking into account considerations such as development, equity, and sustainability, as well as uncertainties and risk."  (Emphasis added.)

"The basis for determining what constitutes 'dangerous anthropogenic interference' will vary among regions, depending both on the local nature and consequences of climate change impacts, and also on the adaptive capacity available to cope with climate change." (Emphasis added.)

The IPCC's last two assessment reports, published in 2007 and 2014, reiterated these arguments, which climate scientists now fully accept.  For example, Katherine Hayhoe recently stated categorically on Twitter that, "... 'dangerous' is not a scientific definition.  It's values-based, and everyone has different values and priorities."

In a nutshell, the IPCC's position is that "dangerous interference with the climate system" is a regional, subjective judgment made by policymakers and not a global, objective fact established by scientists.

To put it politely, the IPCC's stance is completely untenable.

The first reason is semantic: what the organization has really done is to define objective global danger out of existence. To see this, imagine that CO2 has risen to 1,000 parts per million (ppm), the polar ice caps have melted, superstorms are raging, continents are burning, and hundreds of millions are dying each year.  Even under these conditions there will be regional differences in impacts and adaptive capacities, and policymakers will be making "value judgments".  This means that, with Earth systems crashing and a human die-off well under way, the IPCC will still be unable to specify "dangerous interference".  The organization has therefore used the subjective argument to remove even the logical possibility that unsafe GHG concentrations could be scientifically determined.

Aside from the deceptive semantics, the IPCC's position is profoundly unethical because it massively favors the rich over the poor.  If unsafe GHG levels are regionally established then a plausible scenario is that the affluent Global North will tolerate a CO2 rise to 450 ppm or higher while the vulnerable Global South will desperately strive for 350 ppm or lower.  Given the world's power disparities, the North's climate actions will dominate, which means that Bangladesh, the island nations, and many other poor countries will be ecologically devastated.  This outcome, which is essentially what is happening today, makes a mockery of the commitment by both the IPCC and the United Nations to global equity and international solidarity.

Another reason to reject the IPCC's stance is that it flouts the organization's clear environmental responsibility.  The word "danger" means peril: risk of harm or injury.  In 1995, when the second assessment report was released, the CO2 concentration was already 360 ppm, and thirty years had passed since the LBJ report warned that increased CO2 levels could be “deleterious” to humankind.  It was therefore well known that the Earth was moving rapidly away from the Holocene conditions that underpin human civilization.  The risk of harm to humankind and nature was thus glaringly evident, and there is no doubt that the IPCC should have warned the world that dangerous interference had already arrived.

To summarize, the IPCC in 1995 dismissed the widely recognized fact that "dangerous interference with the climate system" had already begun, and it twisted both language and logic to negate the very idea of a global danger point.  This allowed it to fix public attention on the emission scenarios that serve the over-consuming rich while shunning the safe-concentration scenarios that might rescue the suffering poor.  The inevitable result was the skyrocketing GHG levels that are now devastating the global environment.

I must add that scientists, progressives, and environmentalists have thus far remained silent about this intellectual and ethical travesty.

The above is highly significant because it causes the standard climate story to collapse like a house of cards.  This story is that, because "dangerous interference" is subjective, safe concentrations can't be scientifically determined, hence all we can talk about are emissions, so the best we can do is aim for net-zero emissions while concentrations continue to rise.  Remove the first element of this story and the rest makes no sense.

What all this means is that the IPCC has for decades based its reports and proposals on what is essentially a lie.  And because progressives and environmentalists base their activism on what the organization tells them, they are being guided by the ecocidal story that is rooted in this lie.  This is why they have mistakenly chosen clean energy as the main climate solution, and why Planet of the Humans is an important documentary.  Whatever its faults, the film rejects the IPCC's widely accepted falsehood by moving beyond energy-based emission reductions to the fundamental problem of ecological overshoot.

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