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Damian Ryan: Leaders must be climate science champions

25 September 2013
Damian Ryan: Leaders must be climate science champions

Ahead of the IPCC launch, Damian Ryan, Senior Policy Manager, The Climate Group, writes about the need for leaders to be climate science champions. You can read more by Damian here

Damian writes: 

Here at The Climate Group, our theory of change is a simple one. We believe that a relatively small group of committed leaders can have a disproportionate impact on tackling climate change. Through their words, actions and force of personality, these leaders can help create the economic, technological, social and political tipping-points that accelerate the shift to a low carbon future.

This week, as the climate world gears up for the release of the much anticipated Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the need for leaders of this kind to step forward and champion climate science is critical.

The necessity for this call to action, frustratingly, is an indictment of our collective efforts to date. The fact is, we don’t need another 1000-page report to explain why we must reduce greenhouse gases to avoid dangerous climate change. The IPCC has already produced four of these in the last 23 years. What we are missing–and have been for the last two decades–is a critical mass of forward thinking decision makers, in business, government and civil society.

More than ever, today’s leaders need to take the scientific evidence presented to them and translate it into concrete actions. This means real transformative change in how we produce and consume energy and run our economies, not simply tinkering on the side.

The comforting but false hope of climate skeptics

Part of the reason for the lack of such action to date has been the success of the climate skeptic community in creating an atmosphere of doubt about the science.

It is true that skepticism and recognition of uncertainty in natural systems are healthy and essential parts of the scientific process. But these pillars of rational and empirical research have been cynically manipulated in politics, business and in the media. The sometimes explicit, sometimes implied message has been that the immense body of climate science research remains insufficient to justify ambitious action to reduce emissions. This is simply not the case.

Efforts to downplay the latest and yet-to-be-released findings from the IPCC are already underway. Claims that the planet hasn’t warmed for over a decade, that Arctic sea ice is growing not shrinking and that the atmosphere is far less sensitive to changes in carbon dioxide than previously thought, appear to form the basis of the skeptic strategy. All three claims are simply wrong or hugely misleading at best.

The reality is that the planet as a whole–i.e. taking into account air, sea and land–has continued to warm over the last decade and a half, even as atmospheric surface temperatures have plateaued over the same period. Scientists now have very strong evidence to suggest that the oceans have absorbed the majority of the excess heat, even if the precise mechanism for this remains uncertain. Focusing on a single temperature record (i.e. the atmospheric one), as climate skeptics have done, is simply disingenuous.

Much too has been made of the so-called recovery in Arctic summer sea ice this year. Such claims are again a deliberate misreading of the data. Although this year’s ice coverage was 50% above last year’s record-breaking low, it was still the sixth lowest on record, confirming a long-term declining trend that has been evident for some time.

Finally, there is the issue of climate sensitivity. In layman’s terms, this is the atmospheric temperature change expected from a doubling in concentration of CO2. The temperature range of climate sensitivity has always been wide (from as low as around 1oC to more than 6oC) but with a best estimate of between 2oC and 4.5o C. Some of the latest research suggests that the upper extremes are now unlikely.

These early findings have been repackaged by skeptics and sold as proof that CO2 is far less damaging than scientists have claimed. In truth, the evidence still points to warming between 1.5oC and 4.5oC. Such temperature change, as the World Bank and other leading institutions have noted, will bring tremendous challenges at best and catastrophic change if the upper end of the range were reached.

Like the Sirens of Greek mythology, the alluring voice of climate skeptics is comforting but ultimately perilous. It offers an easy out for decision makers but with no mention of the tremendous risk to companies and communities that comes from inaction. It is also a voice that fails to recognize the enormous economic opportunities and co-benefits, such as biodiversity protection and less pollution that come from tackling climate change.

Time to step up to the plate

The task facing leaders as the IPCC releases its new report is a simple one. Whether in business, government or civil society, they have an obligation today to speak out in support of the evidence presented by climate scientists. Failure to do so puts their companies and communities at risk and their own reputations and legacy on the line.

Scientific, evidenced-based decision making must remain at the heart of any pragmatic and effective response to climate change. Leaders have a responsibility for making sure a tipping point in understanding of and support for climate science occurs as quickly as possible. Without this the merchants of doubt win, and we all lose.

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