(*T Pratchett) The subtitle to this blog is: “Is it time to panic yet?”
Following COP21 in Paris the world seems to be frantically pushing for climate change actions. In CSAG we talk about it; we have arguments about whether scientists should engage in activism, or if we are putting too much of our research into the public domain and our fear of whether (or when) it will be misused.
Society is taking action, and that scares some scientists. Yet, maverick I may be, there’s a principle I rather like that Linus Torvalds, in classic Finnish nature, put forward when he said: “The thing about bad … decisions is that you can always undo them. […] I’d rather make a decision that turns out to be wrong later than waffle about possible alternatives for too long.” To never take a decision is an abdication of responsibility.
And so that’s a long winded way of introducing this weeks experience at IPCC-43 – the periodic meeting of governments where they conduct the business of the IPCC.
There is a recognition that the IPCC are “custodians of the original mandate, but also of an evolving mandate”. That evolving mandate is to assess and deliver to decision makers, as best as possible, the knowledge they seek to inform national actions and steer international cooperation.
But now there is a new urgency, and an overriding concern that the window of opportunity is narrowing before we are seriously impacted by climate change. The point is made that the typical scientist-academic in the IPCC (and beyond) develops a public identity that carries a tremendous responsibility. In the words of Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP and UN Under-Secretary-General (see my appeal to authority?), “We are part guarantors of the future for 7 billion people.”
High sounding language, but hard to pedantically dispute.
Should we be panicking? Well, I’d argue there is certainly cause for an elevated level of concern. One can consider a number of views as to why this is so. The world is showing no real evidence (rhetoric aside) that it is getting control of emissions. There are suggestions that in the recent year CO2 emissions may have plateaued, but that’s hardly cause for celebration – it’s short term and we need a strong decline. Then there are recent indicators of a world under enhanced warming; Feb 2016 was a record 1.35 degC above the 1951-1980 baseline. Methane emissions are showing a deeply disturbing increase at high latitudes (you can disturb your sleep with this image). There are new results that suggest some ocean-ice feedbacks could plausibly operate much faster than previously anticipated (e.g. Hansen et al.), and that we may be underestimating the equilibrium climate sensitivity of the planet (Tan et al.). At the same time we are seeing a record low for the Arctic sea ice maximum extent, and unusual record breaking melt in Greenland.
Now, one may argue the specifics of each of these and many other indicators. The point is that there is a growing accumulation of evidence that points to a serious push back on the acceptable carbon allowance. Our time window in which to achieve a peak and decline is shrinking, and serious impacts look likely to come sooner than expected. In the words of Christiana Figueres (you of course know who she is!), the question before us now is “How to achieve more in less time, and allocate resources to benefit the global community?”
Time is the enemy here: impacts will continue to increase even after (and if) emissions peak and decline, and so a continued evolution of the messages we communicate is essential.
For the scientist, the scientists engaged in climate, this creates a challenge of immediacy, and of strategy. Firstly, how fast, in how much detail, and in what forms do we communicate our uncertain comprehensions of the possible futures – considering the time scales, the vulnerabilities, the risks, and in a context of a scientific paradigm where advances in understanding typically occur through contestation. Secondly, how do we strategically approach our work, our collaboration, and our public face.
For CSAG this is a challenge that undoubtedly elicits a wide range of responses. However, I would suggest that paralysis through fear of mistakes is arguably the worst course we could follow. Finding that balance between intellectual safety and the time imperative of a global need is the tricky “slackline” we need to walk. And of course, we begin unbalanced because we are not the ones to define the need!