The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading international body for the assessment of climate change, is working toward a future release of its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), due for finalization in 2014. Compared with previous reports, the IPCC site says, “the AR5 will put greater emphasis on assessing the socio-economic aspects of climate change and implications for sustainable development, risk management and the framing of a response through both adaptation and mitigation.” Last week, the report was sent out from Geneva for closed-access perusal by the governments of the IPCC member states.
The new report is expected to conclude that natural climate cycles and man-made global climate change will intensify each other’s impact, rather than mitigate it, as is currently the case. This intensification of both the natural and anthropogenic factors will likely result in disastrous consequences for humankind. The planet has offered us a generous reprieve – and we must use it to cut down dangerous emissions: Or else the climate time bomb will go off, and we’ll be helpless to prevent the catastrophe.
Bellona spoke with Alexei Kokorin, head of WWF-Russia Climate Program, about what has changed in what we know about the world’s changing climate in the seven years since the IPCC published its previous report, about the risks and threats ahead, and what the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report can be expected to hold in store for us.
Bellona: What is the Assessment Report that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is working on?
Alexei Kokorin: The Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC is not a scientific study in its own right. It is a review and summary of scientific knowledge. If you read specialized scientific journals, you will have all the information even before the IPCC’s Assessment Report is published. This is precisely why we are able to talk about this report with such certainty now, before its official publication date.
Bellona: What are the expectations regarding the publication of the new Assessment Report?
Alexei Kokorin: On May 10, the main volume of the report, the one which says how and why the climate is changing, [went out] for a completely closed-access review by the governments of the IPCC member countries. These are the rules. The scientists first prepare the report, then send it to the governments without showing it to anyone else. So, after May 10, it is scheduled to be delivered to a very limited number of people in all the IPPC member states, including Russia.
The climate time bomb
Bellona: Can we speculate as to what will be said in this report?
Alexei Kokorin: The main thing that is expected to be there is data saying that the climate “time bomb” may blow up sometime around 2040. Whereas earlier it was believed that man’s impact on the climate was gradual, and that the situation was deteriorating in a gradual way, now – in contrast to the previous report, which was being put together seven years ago – much more information has been obtained on ocean cycles and other natural fluctuations. Scientists have realized that today, in the 2010s, man’s impact is being mitigated by natural cycles that are offsetting the impact made on the climate by man. This situation will hold for about another twenty years. But it is completely clear that after that, this mitigation will yield to escalation.
We are having a sort of a breather now, but soon enough, we’ll see an onslaught of both – both natural and man-made processes that are causing the rise in temperature.
And temperature will surge dramatically. Yes, temperature rise will then slow down again, sometime in the 2070s, but it will soar up again after that. Understanding this is what makes this new knowledge principally different from what was known seven years ago.
A “respite given by nature”: a lucky break to turn the crisis around
Bellona: What must be done in this situation?
Alexei Kokorin: When you’re told that in the past fifteen years, the temperature of surface air on the planet has not been rising, this should not in any way be construed as proof that humankind’s impact on the climate has ceased. Scientists know it hasn’t. They know it’s because of how natural fluctuations are superimposed on the impact made by man. This is just a respite that nature gave us. And we must use this respite not for wishful thinking and inaction, but for reducing emissions, because after this respite, a double effect will ensue.
Climate change and its health effects
Bellona: What will we see in the other volumes of the Assessment Report?
Alexei Kokorin: The other volumes, as far as one can tell, will not contain such mind-blowingly new information. The second volume will be released in March 2014. It will deal with assessing the impact of climate change on ecosystems, on human life, on health. One can expect in this volume very serious information specifically on health, on the spread of various infectious diseases.
This is not just about malaria and the like. One illustration that can be used as an example is the situation with the spread of encephalitis-carrying ticks in Moscow Region. Where earlier, [warnings for an increased infection risk] only came for two northern districts, Taldom and Dmitrovsky Districts, now, encephalitis-bearing ticks are found south of Moscow as well. Warmer winters increase the tick’s survival rate. Encephalitis is a very serious disease, though so far, not many people have contracted it. Medical issues associated with climate change have been studied much better now.
Better understanding of effects on the ocean
Bellona: What are the data on wildlife?
Alexei Kokorin: In terms of impact on wildlife, the focus has been made not just on flagship species, such as the polar bear, which, as it turns out, is apparently able to adjust, more or less. A lot of attention will be given to a large number of tropical species, a large number of oceanic species (these include the corals and other species), to the increase in ocean acidification. This is a very serious process. Basically, everything that is happening in the ocean, it’s much more important than the rise of air temperature. What is also important is the issue of sea level rise. It’s important in terms of how sea level is expected to be rising. The important conclusion is that a one-meter rise of sea level is already inevitable, it’s a matter of time. Some ocean islands will definitely be submerged, and the question that remains open is whether we can save the rest.
Solar and geothermal energy sources promise cheaper electricity
Bellona: What will the report’s third volume contain?
Alexei Kokorin: The third volume is expected to be published in April 2014. It talks about ways that greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced. This field has seen great achievements in emissions reduction technologies in the past seven years. First and foremost, it’s the advances made by solar energy, geothermal energy. These are the areas where power production costs can be driven down dramatically. Another thing, it’s the assessment of what the production and use of shale gas and so-called unconventional oil can mean for the climate. These are serious questions not just from the point of view of a threat of groundwater pollution, but from the point of view of impact on the climate as well. These questions were not posed seven years ago.
IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report: public release
Bellona: When will the Fifth Assessment Report be available to the general public?
Alexei Kokorin: At the end of 2014, when all three volumes of the Fifth Assessment Report are published, all the political recommendations will be consolidated.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Background
The IPCC, says the organization’s website, was established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988 to “provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts.” The IPCC is open to all member countries of the United Nations and WMO.
The IPCC’s role is “review[ing] and assess[ing] the most recent scientific, technical and socio-economic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change. It does not conduct any research nor does it monitor climate related data or parameters.”
The panel’s previous, Fourth Assessment Report, was published in 2007.