On September 27th, a group of international scientists associated with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will gather in an old brick brewery in Stockholm and proclaim with near certainty that human activity is altering the planet in profound ways. The IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report offers slam-dunk evidence that burning fossil fuels is the cause of most of the temperature increases of recent decades, and warn that sea levels could rise by almost three feet by the end of the century if we don't change our ways. The report will underscore that the basic facts about climate change are more established than ever, and that the consequences of escalating carbon pollution are likely to mean that, as The New York Times recently argued, "babies being born now could live to see the early stages of a global calamity."
A leaked draft of the report points out that the link between fossil-fuel burning and climate change is already observable: "It is extremely likely that human influence on climate caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010. There is high confidence that this has warmed the ocean, melted snow and ice, raised global mean sea level and changed some climate extremes in the second half of the 20th century." If you look beyond the tables and charts and graphs that fill the reports, you can see the Arctic vanishing, great cities like Miami and Shanghai drowning, droughts causing famine in Africa, and millions of refugees fleeing climate-related catastrophes. Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the IPCC, recently told a group of climate scientists that if we want to avoid this fate, governments must act now to cut carbon pollution: "We have five minutes before midnight."
But, of course, this is nothing new. In 2007, when the IPCC released its Fourth Assessment Report, it was also nearly certain that human activity was heating up the planet, with grave consequences for our future well-being. And six years before that, when the IPCC released its Third Assessment, scientists were pretty certain about it too. But phrases like "high confidence" in warming do not, to the unscientific ear, inspire high confidence in the report's finding, since they imply the existence of doubt, no matter how slight. And in the climate wars, "Doubt is what deniers thrive on and exploit," says Bob Watson, who was head of the IPCC from 1997 to 2002. The final report has not even been released yet, and already prominent bloggers in the denial-sphere, like Anthony Watts, are calling it "stillborn."
But perhaps the most significant thing about the new IPCC report is not the scientific findings. It's that the release of the report may actually mark the beginning of a new phase of the climate wars – one in which scientists and activists learn to fight back.
The IPCC, which was founded in 1988 by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization, is the world's leading authority on climate science. Deniers like to characterize it as a big, faceless bureaucracy – but in fact it's a tiny agency. The entire organization is housed on the eighth floor of the WMO offices in Geneva and has only 12 full-time employees, with an annual budget of a measly $9 million. The agency doesn't do any research on its own – its role is simply to assess and interpret scientific, technical and economic data. All of the actual work – the assessments themselves – is written by scientists around the world, who volunteer their time to distill information from thousands of studies and academic papers. As climate science has gotten more complex, the reports have ballooned. The Fourth Assessment was more than 3,000 pages long and was toiled over by more than 800 scientists and 2,500 expert reviewers – the Fifth Assessment is likely to be even bigger. These reports, which are issued every five or six years, are broken into three sections: Working Group I, which covers the physical science of climate change, will be released this month; Working Group II, which explores the impacts of rising carbon pollution on nature and human life, will be released next March; Working Group III, which analyzes various scenarios to cut carbon pollution, is due in April. Finally, a synthesis report that tries to pull it all together in a brief summary will be published next fall.
When scientists undertook the first IPCC assessment in the late 1980s, the assumption was that if they got the facts right, politicians would take action. "In the beginning, the purpose of the reports was to provide the fundamentals for a global climate agreement," says Watson. The first report, issued in 1990, led to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the international treaty that was the foundation for a global agreement. The second report, which came out in 1995, was supposed to be the basis for the Kyoto Protocol. But Kyoto, of course, was DOA, in part because it was never ratified by the U.S.
Deniers have always been cranked up about the IPCC, in part because of the black-helicopter paranoia of many conservatives who see climate change as a U.N. plot to take away freedom. And from the beginning, they have fought dirty, attacking not just the science but the scientists themselves. After the IPCC released its Second Assessment in 1995, the deniers were not happy that the report directly linked global warming with the burning of fossil fuels ("The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate"). So they attacked one of the lead authors of the report, Ben Santer, an atmospheric scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. A fossil-fuel-industry-funded group called the Global Climate Coalition accused Santer of removing mention of uncertainties in the chapter to make global warming appear more certain than it was. Later investigations found that Santer's so-called scientific cleansing involved little more than clarifying language suggested by fellow scientists. "Nothing in my scientific training prepared me for what I faced in the aftermath of that report," Santer says now. One night years later, he opened his front door and found a dead rat on his porch. In the street, he watched a yellow Hummer drive off, the driver yelling obscenities at him.
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