IPCC climate report “diluted” under “political pressure” to protect fossil fuel interests

Yes, you read that headline right. IPCC dilutes their climate reports, at least according to this report in the Guardian.

We covered this problem before — “IPCC accidentally proves that “international cooperation” on climate change is dead” — but we didn’t finger the Saudis as the perps. The Guardian does.

Nafeez Ahmed with the story (my emphasis everywhere):

IPCC reports ‘diluted’ under ‘political pressure’ to protect fossil fuel interests

Saudi-led coalition sought to make policy summaries as vague as possible to minimise climate action

… Several experts familiar with the IPCC government approval process for the ‘Summary for Policymakers’ (SPM) reports – documents summarising the thousands of pages of technical and scientific reports for government officials – have spoken out about their distortion due to political interests.

According to David Wasdell, who leads on feedback dynamics in coupled complex global systems for the European Commission’s Global System Dynamics and Policy (GSDP) network, “Every word and line of the text previously submitted by the scientific community was examined and amended until it could be endorsed unanimously by the political representatives.”

Ahmed links to a paper written by Wasdell that’s severely critical of the IPCC process for vetting the especially visible Summary document. From that paper (pdf; my paragraphing and emphasis; text from top of page 3):

Four days after publication I had the privilege to attend a seminar at the Royal Society in London, at which Prof. Thomas Stocker introduced the Summary for Policymakers to a packed audience. As co-chair of Workgroup 1 of the IPCC AR5, Thomas had presided over the marathon session in Stockholm which ended at 5.30 am prior to the publication deadline of 10.00 am.

As noted above, the most difficult sticking point was focussed around Figure 10 and its associated text. The material presented a near-linear relationship between cumulative anthropogenic emissions of carbon and the consequent change in average global surface temperature. It provided the scientific basis for determining the potential budget of permitted future emissions before risking transgression of the agreed policy ceiling of an increase of 2°C above the pre-industrial benchmark.

As the country with arguably the most to lose from the future implementation of any restriction on the use of fossil hydrocarbons, the objections were led by Saudi Arabia, strongly supported by China, and associated with an emerging group of “like-minded nations”. The impasse was broken following suggested modifications of both text and diagram provided by the representatives of the USA.

The resulting compromise safeguards the vested interests of global dependency on fossil sources of energy, while constraining the capacity of the international community to take any effective action to deal with the threat of dangerous climate change.

Here’s that “compromised” Figure 10 from the released Summary.

IPCC AR5 WG1 Summary for Policymakers, Fig SPM-10 (final)

IPCC AR5 WG1 Summary for Policymakers, Fig SPM-10 (final)

The issue appears to be the dark blue dot labeled “2100” which represents the cumulative carbon “budget” that “we” — meaning the carbon billionaires — could be allowed to monetize and emit (spew) through the year 2100 and still stay within the least dangerous scenario, “RCP2.6”. (RCP‘s are what the IPCC used to call scenarios. The scenario RCP2.6 is the one with the least carbon emissions, and the least danger to mankind. It corresponds roughly to the U.N.-desired global warming “limit” of +2°C.)

The scale along the bottom represents the carbon budgets of the various scenarios in amounts of cumulative carbon (GtC, or gigatons of carbon). For each scenario (RCP) there’s dot for each decade, ending with a dot for 2100, the end of the century. The scale at the top is the same as the scale at the bottom, but expressed as as gigatons of CO2 instead of just carbon. (Since 1 ton of carbon is the amount of carbon found in 3.66 tons of CO2, either scale can be used to measure carbon emissions.)

Notice that there’s a “2100” dot for each scenario; that the dots represent cumulative emissions; and that the worse the outcome in terms of temperature change (shown on the Y-axis), the further to the right each per-scenario dot is. Higher up means more warming; to the right means more carbon emitted. Thus the more to the right that final “2100” dot for the “safe” scenario is, the more carbon is “available” to be monetized without (supposedly) hitting the danger point of global warming danger point.

Again — that dot on RCP2.6 represents U.N.-allowed carbon emissions. Not nothing, if you’re a carbon producer. Negotiating the position of that dark blue dot (and the ones leading to it) is apparently what this controversy is about. What they’re actually negotiating is how much money they can make from their carbon reserves and still not be labeled carbon criminals by the U.N. body.

According to Wasdell, that negotiation took the form of refining definitions — what counts as “carbon emissions” and already adds to the total (constraining the future budget), and what can be ignored (not counted) as part of the future allowed total? Read the piece for how tricky that discussion got.

About the U.N. “carbon budget” in general, Ahmed writes:

 Wasdell said that the draft submitted by scientists contained a metric projecting cumulative total anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, on the basis of which a ‘carbon budget’ was estimated – the quantity of carbon that could be safely emitted without breaching the 2 degrees Celsius limit to avoid dangerous global warming. He said that the final version approved by governments significantly amended the original metric to increase the amount of carbon that could still be emitted.

I don’t have the earlier version of that figure, so we have to take Wasdell’s word at this point. Elsewhere in the article though, Ahmed references other scientists backing up Wasdell’s claim. Please do read. Keep in mind that Working Group 1 (WG1) is the group responsible for the physical science — the hard data, in other words.

Ahmed quotes Wasdell as having told him:

“The summary for policymakers is a document of appeasement, not fit for purpose. In reality, if my calculations are correct, we not only don’t have much of a carbon budget left, we have already overshot that budget – we’re in overdraft.”

I would say, without having seen the earlier draft of the figure, that the bolded statement above is absolutely right, and demonstrable from many sources, including Michael Mann in a recent Scientific American. Mann writes:

These data therefore indicate that to reliably avoid two degrees C of warming [above pre-Industrial levels], CO2 levels should be held to 405 ppm (blue [line]) — barely above the 393 to 400 ppm levels observed in the past year.

In other words, no budget at all. In other words, Stop Now.

Would you put it past the Saudis, backed by China and abetted by the U.S, to negotiate for more billions (sorry, CO2 emissions) in a heavily negotiated document? Would you put it past a U.N. body to cave to them?

Me neither.

[Updated for clarity.]


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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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