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The One Page I Will Read – IPCC Working Group II

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 4:35 PM GMT on April 29, 2014

The One Page I Will Read – IPCC Working Group II

A program manager friend of mine in D.C. used to ask me for the one page that he would read, the two pages he would read if the project was interesting and the five pages he would read if he needed to know the details. We often hear about the elevator speech, when you get the length of an elevator ride to pitch a program or sell your project. These are frightfully small amounts of time and words to convey large amounts of complex information.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has assessed the state of our knowledge about climate change at regular intervals since 1988. There are three reports at each assessment release, The Physical Science Basis (Working Group I), Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (Working Group II) and The Mitigation of Climate Change (Working Group III). Maybe it’s just my prejudice, but it has always seemed to me that the Working Group I report got the most attention. I want to write a little bit about Working Group II. I know that I am late compared to the press releases and other blogs, but that’s my style. I don’t really have much to add during the big flurry of activity, but if the document is important, then I hope to maybe keep it alive a bit after it has run its news cycle. It’s an awfully long document; just picking one out, Chapter 30 of the Working Group II Report has 138 pages. It does not meet that standard of the one page I will read.

The IPCC has made great efforts to provide more communicative documents. There is a Summary for Policy Makers, a set of Frequently Asked Questions, a video and aGlossary. The glossary is especially valuable, as there is an ongoing effort to make the vocabulary common and precise across many fields and many languages.

I was delighted to see that a former student of my class, Ilissa Ocko, was not only gainfully employed, but she had written a summary blog of the Working Group II report. The now Dr. Ocko listed six key findings (see one of her graphics below):

1) Climate change is now everywhere

2) Humans and ecosystems are both vulnerable

3) Food security, water resources, human health, ecosystems, and the economy are all at stake

4) Many global risks of climate change are concentrated in urban efforts

5) Building resilience is critical to limiting risks …

6) … but cutting heat-trapping gas emissions is essential.

If you review the current set of IPCC reports and compare the messages to the previous reports in 2007 and 2001, then there is remarkable consistency of message. This consistency of message is a measure of the certitude of the knowledge that we have about climate change. This report documents with “high confidence” changes in natural systems such as migration patterns and shifts in geographical ranges. There is also an emerging climate-change signal of an increase in species extinction. Climate change is not the only stress at play in species extinction, which is a consequence of the domination of the Earth’s environment by humans.

With degrees of confidence ranging from “medium” to “high,” the assessment report documents changes in the supply and distribution of fresh water. The changes that involve melting of glaciers, ice sheets and permafrost are essentially permanent – they will not be reversed in our lifetime or the lifetimes of our children and their children. In Chapter 28, the melting of permafrost is given “very high confidence,” with impacts on both ecosystems and infrastructure. The threats to infrastructure include specific mention of that which we have built to manage hazardous materials, such as oil. (Angela Fritz’s blog on permafrost and carbon dioxide emissions)

The intersections between melting permafrost, ecosystems and human infrastructure are a concrete example of the integrated risk. When we talk about integrated risk, some take the position that the risk is not due to climate change, but due to bad decisions by people – perhaps building in places that are vulnerable. This form of argument, removing climate change as a factor, is increasingly less convincing, which is especially obvious in the Arctic. It will become more obvious as the melting of sea ice opens up offshore oil drilling, which would be too costly, largely impossible, without climate change. This becomes linked to roads and pipelines whose underpinnings are weakened by melting permafrost. The threats of oil spills at drilling sites and from oceanic shipping all become possible, fundamentally, because of climate change – followed by the decisions that we will make to build in vulnerable zones.

The Working Group II report also reviews efforts around the world to take on the challenges of adaptation. A hopeful sign is taking climate change into account in planning exercises. Though implementation of specific adaptation actions remains limited, there is increasing evaluation of vulnerability and risk. It is especially notable that economic development plans increasingly incorporate consideration of climate and climate change. Especially in cases where changes in water supply are already being observed or where sea level is a threat, climate change is prominent in the planning discussion.

The IPCC reports are daunting in their scope and in their size. The information and knowledge in the reports is complex, and it is a continual challenge on how to communicate complex knowledge. There has been significant effort to improve the communication of the material in these reports. The complete reports can be downloaded as searchable PDFs. The reports are a snapshot of the literature and knowledge of the recent past. With the emergence of verifiable signals of climate change, the reports offer many case studies to help us think about the future and our responses.


Figure 1: Global Observed Impacts of climate change. See more of Ilissa Ocko's graphics

Climate Impacts and Risks

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.