IPCC Discovers Infographics – Communicates Climate Change

Working Group II put out their state of the climate for AR5 this March and finally worked out how to communicate climate change.

WHO: The many, many world leading scientific authors of the IPCC – the list is here.

WHAT: Working Group II – the impacts, vulnerability and adaptation group from the IPCC

WHEN: 31 March 2014

WHERE: The IPCC website

TITLE: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability (open access)

Remember in October 2013, when the first chunk of the IPCC 5th Assessment Report (AR5 for us nerds) was released and I was really snarky about how everyone at the UN speaks a really dense dialect of bureaucrat that almost no-one else can understand and will therefore not bother to read?

Well this time the IPCC got it right! The report from Working Group II who look at the impacts, vulnerability and adaptation humanity will have to do because of climate change discovered colours and infographics and language that normal people actually speak and then used it in their summary for policy makers. They even improved the website to make it more user friendly. Round of applause to the IPCC, the UN Foundation and all the communicators who probably spent many hours de-wonkifying the scientific and bureaucratic language.

The IPCC discovers colour and images (from paper)

The IPCC discovers colour and images (from paper)

This means my job this week was much easier as I don’t even need to translate the 44-page summary for you, but since it’s 44 pages long, I’ll give you the short version.

This time around, the IPCC deliberately went with a risk management frame for communicating climate impacts, and noted that doing something about climate change isn’t really related to the science, so much as it’s a value judgement on how much we’re willing to roll the dice. They do however helpfully point out that ‘climate change poses risks for human and natural systems’ and that it’s being felt in all countries, on all continents and in all the oceans as well. Sorry to burst your bubble if you thought climate change wasn’t going to get you too.

They even put a glossary up the front so you know what they’re talking about when they use words like ‘hazard’, ‘exposure’, ‘vulnerability’, ‘impacts’, ‘risk’, ‘adaptation’, ‘transformation’ and ‘resilience’. Communication high five, IPCC.

Siku the polar bear (image: Polar Bears International)

Siku the polar bear (image: Polar Bears International)

Impacts
So what’s happening so far because of climate change then? Well, it’s a long list of nasty stuff; glaciers are melting, there’s drought, the permafrost is melting and releasing methane. Species are being forced out of their habitat faster than they can move and going extinct and the IPCC can report with a high level of confidence that we’re causing climate change extinctions at a much faster rate than has ever happened with previous natural cycles of climate change.

Plant and animal migration opportunities and how far they could get pushed with climate change (from paper)

Plant and animal migration opportunities and how far they could get pushed with climate change (from paper)

Crops are getting more negative impacts from climate extremes than the extra CO2 is helping them grow, and the ability to grow lettuce in Greenland will be a coin toss depending on how good the quality of the soil is at such high latitudes. Climate change is already affecting the yield of wheat, maize, rice and soybean crops.

Climate change is affecting (and will continue to affect) humans too – it’s harming our health through heatwave deaths and increased waterborne diseases. It’s a ‘threat multiplier’, which means it makes stressful situations more dire, like the drought in Syria which was a big factor in the current civil war there.

The authors also point out that vulnerabilities differ because of inequality, which is their nice way of saying that if you’re poor or you live in a poor country; climate change will hit you first. This makes sense from what we’re already seeing of climate impacts and clean up from extreme weather disasters – it’s much harder to plan for climate adaptation when you live in a warzone.

Adaptation
After all that depressing news, they follow up with some good news – what we’re doing to adapt to climate change. They point out that adaptation is becoming embedded into planning processes, so areas will be more resilient to changes. Adaptation knowledge is accumulating in both the private and public sectors and is being incorporated into risk management processes.

They do point out though that adaptation and mitigation choices that are made now will affect the severity of climate change for the rest of the century. No pressure or anything, but if we get this wrong all your grandchildren might hate you for it.

Future risks
Then they get into how bad it could get if we do nothing. Low-lying Pacific Islands go underwater (the first one was actually evacuated last weekend), coastal cities get flooded, people die in storms and heatwaves, food runs short in some places, farmers lose their land from drought and desertification and places we are really fond of like the Great Barrier Reef die too.

But even if you don’t care about the plants, animals or people in far away countries, the IPCC isn’t going to let you off the hook. They point out that human influence on the climate system is clear, and it’s the level of danger to humans that we have to manage.

Then they do get a little wonky and come up with a hilarious acronym: RFC which stands for ‘Reasons for Concern’ (bureaucrats have a deep love of acronyms). What are the RFCs and should they be keeping you up at night?

Well it’s your call to lose sleep over it, but you should be worried about losing unique systems (any natural wonder of the world basically), extreme weather, uneven distribution of impacts (even if climate change doesn’t destroy your home city, where do you think all the migrants from the dustbowl will go?), global aggregate impacts (like ocean acidification killing all commercial fisheries), and abrupt irreversible impacts (hello melting Greenland ice sheet!).

Sensibly, they point out that increased warming puts us at a greater risk of ‘severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts’, and that the cost of adapting to all these scary disasters is much cheaper if we mitigate (you know, stop burning carbon).

Sectoral risks
Just in case you still thought that climate change is not going to affect you, your friends and family, your hometown and your favourite holiday location, the IPCC would like to let you know it’s also going to affect your livelihood and your access to food.

We’re going to have more drought and water shortages, could have abrupt change in the Arctic or Amazon rainforest causing all kinds of disruption to not only carbon storage, water quality and biodiversity but also economic activity.

Coastal populations will be threatened by flooding, fisheries could collapse and ocean acidification already caused the loss of $10million worth of scallops in Canada. We’ll probably get more famines thus wiping out all the great work charities have done to try and end world hunger, and if that wasn’t bad enough, the report says ‘all aspects of food security are potentially affected by climate change, including food access, utilisation and price stability’. Everything is going to get more expensive and harder to source.

Cities will have more heat stress, flash flooding, landslides, air pollution, drought and water scarcity (the difference being that drought is when you’re short on water for your garden, water scarcity is when you’re short on water for people). Rural areas will have more food and water insecurity and could lose their farms and livelihoods to drought.

And if that laundry list of destruction wasn’t enough for you, here’s what the IPCC says about their worst case scenario projection (which is what will happen with business as usual): ‘by 2100 for the high-emission scenario RCP 8.5 the combination of high temperatures and humidity in some areas for parts of the year is projected to compromise normal human activities including growing food or working outdoors’.

Yeah, business as usual will make it too hot to go outdoors in some places and you won’t be able to grow any food.

Too hot to go outside – business as usual in 2100 on right (from paper)

Too hot to go outside – business as usual in 2100 on right (from paper)

Building resilience
So now that the IPCC has told us with high levels of certainty that we’re in big trouble and that climate change is going to affect everyone, no matter how much money you have to still import bacon, coffee and avocados, what can we do about it?

Firstly – coordinate across different levels of government for things like flood proofing and building infrastructure. Use the range of available strategies and actions to make sure communities are reducing their vulnerability – each of the risk bars on the IPCC infographic have a shaded area, which is the amount of risk that can be reduced through adaptation. Make sure planning takes into account diverse interests, circumstances and sociocultural contexts.

Adaptation risk management opportunities for Australia (from paper)

Adaptation risk management opportunities for Australia (from paper)

Some of the really hard conversations around climate change in the future are going to be with communities who will need to relocate or will lose their way of life because of climate impacts. These discussions are both really important and really difficult – we should be planning for that.

The report gives a slight nod to fossil fuel subsides (and the need to remove them) by saying ‘improved resource pricing, charges and subsidies’ which is their way of saying ‘divest, people’.

Also, (and somewhat obviously, but these things need to be said) the success of any adaptation will depend on how much we mitigate. Unless we stop burning carbon, we won’t have anything left we can adapt to – remember, business as usual makes it too hot to go outside and grow food.

So there you have it – the IPCC have kicked a massive goal this time around managing to stop speaking bureaucrat and start communicating with people. Kudos where it is deserved. Working Group III have their report coming out next week, so we’ll see if they can keep up the great work.

In the mean time, let’s stop burning carbon.

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Smoking Kills, so does Climate Change

A translation of the IPCC 5th Assessment Report Summary for Policymakers

WHO: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

WHAT: Summary for policy makers of their 2000 page 5th Assessment Report (AR5) of the state of the climate and climate science.

WHEN: 27 September 2013

WHERE: On the IPCC website

TITLE: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis Summary for Policymakers (open access)

There’s a lot of things not to like about the way the IPCC communicates what they do, but for me the main one is that they speak a very specific dialect of bureaucrat that no-one else understands unless they’ve also worked on UN things and speak the same sort of acronym.

The worst bit of this dialect of bureaucrat is the words they use to describe how confident they are that their findings are correct. They probably believe they’re being really clear, however they use language that none of the rest of us would ever use and it means their findings make little sense without their ‘very likely = 90-100% certain’ footnote at the front.

So now that we’ve established that the UN doesn’t speak an understandable form of English, what does the report actually say? It works its way through each of the different climate systems and how they’re changing because humans are burning fossil fuels.

As you can see from this lovely graph, each of the last three decades has been noticeably warmer than the proceeding one, and the IPCC are 66% sure that 1983-2012 was the warmest 30 year period in 1,400 years.

Decade by decade average temperatures (Y axis is change in Celsius from base year of 1950) (from paper)

Decade by decade average temperatures (Y axis is change in Celsius from base year of 1950) (from paper)

One of the reasons I really like this graph is you can see how the rate of change is speeding up (one of the key dangers with climate change). From 1850 through to around 1980 each decade’s average is touching the box of the average before it, until after the 80s when the heat shoots up much more rapidly.

The report did have this dig for the deniers though: ‘Due to natural variability, trends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates and do not in general reflect long-term climate trends’. Which is UN bureaucrat for ‘when you cherry pick data to fit your denier talking points you’re doing it wrong’.

Looking at regional atmospheric trends, the report notes that while things like the Medieval Warm Period did have multi-decadal periods of change, these changes didn’t happen across the whole globe like the warming currently being measured.

In the oceans, the top layer has warmed (the top 75m) by 0.11oC per decade from 1971 to 2010, and more than 60% of the carbon energy we’ve pumped into the atmosphere since 1971 has been stored in the top layer, with another 30% being stored in the ocean below 700m.

This extra heat is not just causing thermal expansion, it’s speeding up sea level rise, which the IPCC are 90% certain increased from 1901 to 2010 from 1.7mm per year to 3.2mm per year. This is now happening faster than the past two millenniums. Yes, sea level is rising faster than it has for the last 2,000,000 years so you might want to sell your waterfront property sooner, rather than later.

The extra carbon has also made it harder to live in the ocean if you own a shell, because the acidity of the ocean has increased by 26% which makes shells thinner and harder to grow.

On the glaciers and the ice sheets, the IPCC is 90% certain that the rate of melting from Greenland has increased from 34Gigatonnes (Gt) of ice per year to 215Gt of ice after 2002. Yes, increased from 34Gt to 215Gt – it’s melting six times faster now thanks to us.

For Antarctica, the IPCC is 66% certain that the rate of ice loss has increased from 30Gt per year to 147Gt per year, with most of that loss coming from the Northern Peninsula and West Antarctica. Worryingly, this ice loss will also include the parts of Antarctica that are gaining ice due to natural variability.

And at the North Pole, Santa is going to have to buy himself and his elves some boats or floating pontoons soon, because the IPCC have found ‘multiple lines of evidence support[ing] very substantial Artctic warming since the mid-20th Century’. Sorry Santa!

As for the carbon we’ve been spewing into the atmosphere since the 1850s, well, we’re winning that race too! ‘The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years’. Congratulations humanity – in the last century and a half, we’ve changed the composition of the atmosphere so rapidly that this hasn’t been seen in 800,000 years!

Methane levels have gone up by 150%, and I’m undecided as to whether that means I should eat more beef to stop the cows from farting, or if it means we raised too many cows to be steaks in the first place…

This is the part of the report where we get into the one excellent thing the IPCC did this time around – our carbon budget. I’m not sure whether they realised that committing to reduce certain percentages by certain years from different baselines meant that governments were able to shuffle the numbers to do nothing and make themselves look good at the same time, but this is a promising step.

I’ve written about the very excellent work of Kevin Anderson at the Tyndall Centre in the UK before, but the basic deal with a carbon budget is this: it doesn’t matter when we burn the carbon or how fast, all the matters is the total emissions in the end. You can eat half the chocolate bar now, and half the chocolate bar later, but you’re still eating a whole bar.

Our budget to have a 2/3 chance of not going beyond dangerous climate change is 1,000Gt of carbon and so far we’ve burnt 545Gt, so we’re more than halfway there. All of this leads to the conclusion that ‘human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming and understanding of the climate system.’

What observations you may ask? Scientists have made progress on working out how climate change pumps extreme weather up and makes it worse. They also got it right for the frequency of extreme warm and cold days, which if you live in North America was the hot extremes winning 10:1 over the cold extremes. Round of applause for science everyone!

Warming with natural forcing vs human forcing and how it lines up with the observations (from paper)

Warming with natural forcing vs human forcing and how it lines up with the observations (from paper)

They’re also 95% sure that more than half of the observed global surface warming from 1951 is from humanity. So next time there’s a nasty heatwave that’s more frequent than it should be, blame humans.

The report does also point out though that even though the heat records are beating the cold records 10-1, this doesn’t mean that snow disproves climate change (sorry Fox News!). There will still be yearly and decade by decade by variability in how our planet cooks which will not be the same across the whole planet. Which sounds to me like we’re being warmed in an uneven microwave. For instance, El Niño and La Niña will still be big influencers over the Pacific and will determine to a great extent the variability in the Pacific North West (yeah, it’s still going to rain a lot Vancouver).

For those that were fans of the film The Day After Tomorrow, there’s a 66% chance the Atlantic Meridional Circulation will slow down, but only a 10% chance it will undergo an abrupt change or collapse like it did in the film, so you’re not going to be running away from a flash freezing ocean any time this century.

The report then runs through the different scenarios they’ve decided to model that range from ‘we did a lot to reduce carbon emissions’ to ‘we did nothing to reduce carbon emissions and burned all the fossil fuels’. Because this is the IPCC and they had to get EVERYONE to agree on each line of the report (I’m serious, they approved it line by line, which has to be the most painful process I can think of) the scenarios are conservative in their estimations, not measuring tipping points (which are really hard to incorporate anyway). So their ‘worst case scenario’ is only 4.0oC of surface warming by 2100.

Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) Scenarios from the IPCC AR5

Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) Scenarios from the IPCC AR5

Now, obviously ‘only’ 4oC of climate change by the end of the century is still pretty unbearable. There will still be a lot of hardship, drought, famine, refugee migration and uninhabitable parts of the planet with 4oC. However, once we get to 4oC, it’s likely to have triggered tipping points like methane release from permafrost, so 4oC would be a stopping point towards 6oC even if we ran out of carbon to burn. And 6oC of course, as you all hear me say frequently is mass extinction time. It’s also the point at which even if humanity did survive, you wouldn’t want to live here anymore.

The paper finishes up with a subtle dig at the insanity of relying on geoengineering, pointing out that trying to put shade reflectors into orbit or artificially suck carbon out of the air has a high chance of going horribly wrong. They also point out that if we did manage large scale geoegineering and it then broke down, re-releasing that carbon back into the atmosphere would super-cook the planet really quickly.

The moral of this 36 page ‘summary’ is that it’s us guys. We’re as certain that we’ve done this as we are that smoking causes cancer. We have burned this carbon and it’s changed the chemical energy balance of the atmosphere and if we don’t stop burning carbon we’re going to cook the whole planet. Seriously. So let’s finally, actually stop burning carbon.