Accessible Science: An Introduction to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

What is climate change? Climate change is a long-term statistically significant shift in global weather patterns. Sounds simple, but changes in the climate have many different effects on ecosystems. These effects can interact and cause further changes, which is why studying climate change is ongoing despite many researchers working towards a comprehensive understanding. This is particularly difficult due to the climate naturally changing over time, and sometimes the Earth gets colder on average while at other times it gets warmer naturally.

What is concerning about our current climate change is not that change is happening, but the rate at which it is happening and the human contribution to this change. Separating the natural fluctuations in the Earth’s system and the change caused by human activity is a challenge. Uncertainty in some of the predictions and interactions have led some people to understand that scientists are uncertain about the existence of climate change or human contribution. However, this is not the case. While the literature is currently unsure about the extend and future repercussions; the climate is changing and humans are contributing to this change.

Decidedly settled science: You can't deny your way out of this mess
This picture featured in a Time article titled “How Climate Deniers Try to Sow Confusion” zhuyongming & Getty Images/Moment RF

Climate change science writing
The misunderstanding on the current status of climate research stems from multiple sources. One of these is the way scientific findings are communicated. Journal articles are continuously published on new research but these articles are intended for a scientific audience. They tend to be filled with jargon, formal writing, and with an expectation of expertise. In addition, even when a member from the general public is interested enough to read an article, there is no easy way to access all articles for free. But it is important for people to be able to read more on an issue that will affect every individual living on Earth. When people understand an issue and how it will affect them, they are more likely to be involved with finding a solution. If more people felt they understood the science behind climate change, there will be more people to stand together to demand change for a sustainable future. A remedy to this barrier of scientific writing is the IPCC, an introduction to climate change science and options for adaptation and mitigation is the IPCC.


What is the IPCC?
“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the international body for assessing the science related to climate change.” This committee was created in 1988 with the purpose of condensing the current scientific knowledge down into a report meant for governments and the public. The publications function as an introduction to climate change science, and options for adaptation and mitigation meant for a general audience. The committee is made up of experts from the 195 countries that participate, and these experts condense peer-reviewed and published data. The report itself is reviewed by more experts before it is published and so is representative of what the scientific community thinks as a whole. Below are a few highlights from the latests reports published by the IPCC.

Interesting points from Fifth Assessment Report (AR5)
The AR5 is the most recent version of the comprehensive climate report by the IPCC. It includes three subsidiary reports, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis, Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change, and Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Together these reports cover the social, economic, and environmental aspects of climate change and sustainability.


ar5 warming
Change in average surface temperature based on multi-model mean projections for
2081–2100 relative to 1986–2005 under the RCP2.6 and RCP8.5 scenarios. The number of models used to calculate the multi-model mean is indicated in the upper right corner.

The report has many interesting findings, and one of its strongest statements is that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal”. This means the scientific concensus is that there is no doubt about the fact that the climate is warming on average. Greenhouse gas emissions by humans has been the highest in history between 2000-2010, and this increases human caused radiative forcing. This is how sun energy being trapped in the atmosphere is measured, and this warms the Earth as the energy is trapped for longer.  Other things the report covers includes current impacts from climate change, but one notable finding is that so far there have been more negative impacts of climate change than positive impacts. However, so far it is not possible to conclusively state whether drought events have increased due to climate change. This is because there is not enough comprehensive long term data on drought events and this adds to the difficulty of predicting droughts and other extreme weather events.

Interesting points from Special Report 15 (SR15): Global Warming of 1.5 °C
The SR15 is the most recent report published by the IPCC. It is a special report on the potential impacts of global warming reaching 1.5°C and possibly exceeding it. Special reports are called on more specfic topics than the assesment reports and come out more often.

sr15 warming and co2.JPG
Observed global temperature change and modeled responses to stylized anthropogenic emission and forcing pathways.

Sea level is predicted to rise between 0.26-0.77 m by 2100 with 1.5°C global warming, but if 2°C is reached, this is predicted to increase by 0.1 m (0.04-0.16 m). At 1.5°C global warming, 8% of plants is predicted to experience a decrease in their climatically determined geographic range. This jumps to 16% at 2°C global warming. This would be one of many factors influencing species loss and extinction, which is overall predicted to increase with more warming. Climate warming is also projected to increase climate-related risks to human health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security,
and economic growth.

Do your own research
As redundant as it might sound to do after committees have worked hard to do it for you, a great way to learn more about climate change and the effects is to do your own research and be skeptical. Mistakes happen in science and interpretations can be biased, so it is great practice to form your own understanding of good science. The IPCC reports are great starting places to find interesting research and to expand from there.

Happy reading!


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