Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Years of climate scepticism have done untold damage

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Switzerland is generally feeble at making global headlines.

But it grabbed the world’s attention twice over on Monday when an emergency bank rescue unfolded in Zurich while scientists unveiled a jolting UN climate report down in the resort of Interlaken.

We still don’t know if UBS’s takeover of Credit Suisse will stave off a wider banking meltdown. But the scientists in Interlaken showed we have manifestly failed to do what is needed to thwart the gathering climate crisis.

While striving to explain that there was plenty of money and knowhow to stem emissions, they also warned that billions live in places “highly vulnerable” to warming that one author said could hit 1.5C as soon as the early 2030s.

I say “we” have failed to act, but that is not quite right. Those determined to preserve an overwhelmingly fossil-fuelled economy bear an outsized responsibility. And this week has been a reminder that others are not blame-free. That includes those of us in the news media and, to some extent, the UN body that delivered Monday’s report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The IPCC was set up in 1988 to provide governments with regular, gold standard assessments of climate science and policy. Its reports typically take hundreds of experts years to complete and run to thousands of pages. The one on Monday was a synthesis of six earlier reports, including the colossal sixth assessment that was published in chunks over eight months from August 2021.

It is striking to see how media coverage has changed since the fifth assessment. The day its first report emerged in 2013, a flagship BBC news show interviewed a climate sceptic at length about the finding that humans were “extremely likely” to be the main cause of “unequivocal” global warming.

Bob Carter, an Australian geologist, scoffed that the climate had always changed; there was nothing odd about recent warming and trying to end it was as pointless as trying to stop an earthquake.

This would be unimaginable today. Likewise, it is bracing to look back at an editorial a few days later in the Las Vegas Review-Journal headlined “Global warming alarmists push false premises”.

What the IPCC report was really all about, it warned readers, was “killing off fossil fuel use despite its affordability and reliability”.

It is sobering to consider how much climate policymaking, and the IPCC itself, was affected by all the years when climate scepticism was mainstream.

An absorbing new insider’s account suggests the impact on scientists was real. In his book, Five Times Faster, former UK government climate adviser Simon Sharpe reveals that, far from exaggerating the climate threat, scientists have often shied away from giving governments worst-case scenarios.

One IPCC author he cites explains part of the reason was “intimidation from vested interests, leading to a fear of being accused of scaremongering”.

In 2014, Sharpe joined one of the meetings of scientists and government officials held to approve IPCC reports and the shorter summaries for policymakers that are often all anyone reads. He was struck by a section in the longer report referring to a study showing humans could not survive certain levels of heat and humidity even if they were out of the sun, drenched in water and naked.

But when he tried to have this mentioned in the summary, he was told that, though it was uncontroversial, there was an informal rule that everything in the shorter document had to be supported by at least two pieces of independent research. It stayed out.

Intimidation from outsiders does not entirely explain such caution.

Scientists are relatively tolerant of “false negatives”, or believing a hypothesis is wrong even though it turns out to be true. But they have a deep aversion to “false positives”, or believing a hypothesis is correct when it isn’t. 

These instincts may partly explain why, as Sharpe writes, IPCC reports have repeatedly revised down their estimates of the level of warming that could trigger irreversible tipping points in the climate system.

This week’s IPCC summary for policymakers does not hold back. It spells out with bleak clarity how the risk of tipping points, species extinction and other disasters will rise as the planet warms.

We have never been better informed about the future of the climate. Now we must make up for all those lost years and try to make sure it stays liveable.


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