Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

What future for the IPCC?

By Helen Pallett

Image credit: AgnosticPreachersKid

Climate change has been squarely back on our TV screens and in our newspapers over the last two weeks, with the now familiar media circus surrounding the unveiling of the latest assessment report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC’s fifth assessment report came with increased assurances of the probability of dire impacts caused by human-induced climate change, and moved many British papers from the Guardian to (perhaps more surprisingly) the Telegraph to proclaim the need for immediate global action both to mitigate and cope with these impacts.

Whilst this arguably felt like the most credulous and trusting reception an IPCC report has been met with, there have been rumbles from within the institution itself and from the scientific profession more widely hinting at increasing frustration with IPCC organising and working practices. Former lead author on the 2001 and 2007 IPCC reports, Kevin Trenberth is one who has put his head above the parapet to ask whether it is time to change the IPCC’s reporting practices. He argues that the IPCC has largely fulfilled its original function of synthesising and deliberating over relevant scientific advice on climate change, and that society’s needs are now changing. Furthermore, the effort of writing IPCC reports is “huge, cumbersome and burdensome” he claims, both for the organisation as a whole and for the individual scientists who volunteer their time. He suggests that in light of this and in response to the climate impacts being felt by citizens all over the world, the IPCC should move to a system of more continuous and responsive reporting, rather than the spasmodic compiling of large tomes.

Former climate scientist and IPCC contributor Professor Mike Hulme has leveled perhaps a more radical critique at the IPCC in a recent podcast. Hulme argues that the overemphasis on the science of climate change is a distraction from the more difficult political challenges of promoting policies to mitigate the effects of climate change at multiple scales, and dealing with climate impacts on the ground. Hulme advocates instead an approach which he calls ‘climate pragmatism’ which puts emphasis on improving the ability of societies to deal with risks, the improvement of air quality at regional and national scales, and finally innovation and investment around renewable energy. Such efforts do not require the traditional targets and timetables attached to most international climate negotiations, and indeed do not rest on the need for all countries to agree on these measures. But most importantly for Hulme, this approach does not necessitate any emphatic agreement on the science of climate change or firm predictions of what impacts will be felt where and when.

Hulme has long been a constructive critic of the IPCC, writing a piece in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers on the topic in 2007. In this piece Hulme argues that climate change is both a physical transformation and a cultural object which will have other effects on society. Whilst the IPCC offers a detailed account of this physical transformation, its emphasis on the contributions of natural scientists means that it has done little to address the development of climate change as a cultural object. Furthermore, the account that the IPCC offers is universal and at a global scale, ignoring the different meanings which may be attached to climatic changes in different local and cultural contexts, and preferring the apparent objectivity of numbers and graphs over attempts to understand diverse lived experiences of weather and climate.  The diversity of situated meanings of climate change was further emphasised when the British secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs Owen Paterson announced at a conservative party conference fringe event on Sunday evening that global warming could have some positive effects in the UK. The critiques of Paterson’s comments which followed generally focussed on his lack of appreciation and understanding of the science of climate change (for example see here), rather than his apparent lack of concern for humans living in areas outside of the UK who are facing the possibility of much more catastrophic impacts.

Hulme’s account undermines not only the workings and aims of the IPCC, but also its scope and content, suggesting that alternative modes of knowledge-making about climate might beget different behaviours and policies in future. The story of the ambitious project of the IPCC continues, but who knows what shape it will take in the years to come.

60-world2 Climate change: the uses of uncertainty The Guardian, 26 September

60-world2 We need to cool things down over climate change The Telegraph, 26 September

60-world2 Global warming can have a positive side, says Owen Paterson The Guardian, September 30

60-world2 Owen Paterson v the science of climate change The Guardian, September 30

60-world2 Kevin Trenberth, Time to change how the IPCC reports? The Conversation, September 28

60-world2 IPCC report distracts from resolving political challenges of climate change, says King’s expert  Kings College London, September 27

books_icon Mike Hulme, 2007 Geographical work at the boundaries of climate change Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 33 5-11

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