Stronger Climate Warning Sought for Key UN Report

Kyoto Veterans See Warming Goals Slipping Away: Carbon & Climate
The village of Doun Baba Dièye, near Saint-Louis, northern Senegal, shows the ruins of houses destroyed by the rise of the sea level on May 7, 2013. The rise of the sea level is due to global warming and the opening of an artificial canal, according to a report published in 2008 by the United Nations Agency for Human Settlement in Africa's director Alioune Badiane. Photographer: Seyllou/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. and European Union are pushing for a stronger explanation about the dangers of climate change and the consequences of failing to stem fossil-fuel emissions in the UN’s most extensive report on global warming.

The appeals are detailed in a document putting together comments from more than 30 governments about the United Nations report, due to be published next month. The study is the culmination of five years of work by some 2,000 scientists.

“This report is a story of what happens if we don’t act, and what can happen if we do,” U.S. negotiators wrote. “It should be an effective story.” The text, they said, “lacks a threading narrative.”

Governments care about the wording because they have to justify to voters why they’re spending money to cut emissions when the pace of temperature increases has slowed since 1998. The 181 pages of comments provide a window into the priorities of the nations reviewing the paper including the U.S., China and Saudi Arabia.

“The key messages should contain more substance that can help guide policy makers rather than general overarching statements,” The European Union’s negotiating team wrote. “The overall storyline ... is sometimes not clear and still looks fragmented.”

In one remark, the U.S. team said authors should strike more of a balance because “there are very few references to the vulnerability of wealthier countries to climate change.”

Explanation Needed

That reflects the need for the U.S. and other western governments to explain what damage may come from uncontrolled global warming as well as the benefits of spending more to reduce the risks.

“What about drought? Cyclones? Wildfires? Policymakers care deeply about extreme events,” the U.S. team wrote. “After all, in many ways it is how extreme events will change that will determine many of the (near-term, at least) impacts from climate change. As such, the authors should strongly consider saying more about the projected changes in extreme events.”

The comments were obtained from a person with official access to the study who asked not to be identified because the discussions are confidential.

The U.S. State Department and a spokesman for the European Union declined to comment because the report hasn’t been finalized. Jonathan Lynn, a spokesman for the UN body drawing up the report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, declined to comment on the contents of the document.

IPCC Response

“These comments will be carefully considered by the authors of the report and the government delegates to help the panel produce a robust and clear document,” Lynn said.

The IPCC’s report is intended to be the go-to resource for policymakers who are devising rules and laws to cut carbon from factories, power stations and cars and to protect infrastructure from the effects of climate change, such as increased flooding and heatwaves.

This so-called synthesis report draws together scientific findings from three UN studies published over the past year. It is condensed further into a Summary for Policymakers. The final wording of that paper will be debated line by line at a meeting next week in Copenhagen. Government representatives from around the world will attend, and the document is scheduled for publication on Nov. 2.

The U.S. called on the authors to “weave a consistent story, making the text less dense and more comprehensible to the layperson, drawing in specific, compelling examples of observed changes, projected changes, uncertainties.”

Climate Talks

The IPCC’s report is being delivered at a crunch time for international talks on how to curb greenhouse gases. Negotiators are preparing for two weeks of discussions in December in Peru, where they intend to draft a negotiating text for a new global agreement. Early next year, countries are due to spell out their plans to cut emissions as part of that deal.

The package is scheduled to be wrapped up in Paris in 2015 and take effect from 2020, when the current limits on emissions set out in the Kyoto Protocol are due to expire.

A year ago, the UN panel said that the rate of global temperature rises since 1998 has been less than half of the pace seen since 1951. Scientists say natural variability in the climate can explain some of the slowdown, and studies have shown the oceans, too, are absorbing more heat.

Leaked Documents

A final draft of the IPCC Synthesis report, obtained by Bloomberg in August, said that human activity risks causing “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” through continued carbon pollution. It was stronger language than the panel has used in the past.

None of the comments submitted by governments called for that passage to be deleted, although the U.S. requested a footnote to spell out what is meant by “irreversible.”

The quantity of comments illustrates the task facing the scientists in producing a document that’s acceptable to representatives of the 195 governments that are party to the IPCC. There are more than 2,000 comments about specific lines in the IPCC draft.

Some of the suggestions show conflicts. One diagram that U.S. negotiators said is “confusing” was described as “very useful and clear” by the German team.

Most of them involve changes to individual words, copy editing suggestions, and requests for clarifications, rather than substantive alterations. Variants of the words “clarify” and “clarity” occur 141 times in the comments, while “clear,” “unclear,” and related words appear 264 times. There are 58 instances where a piece of the text was called “confusing.”

The U.S. submitted 314 comments. China, which had 22, requested a greater focus on adaptation to the effects of climate change and more emphasis on the importance of technology and financing to tackle the issue.

Other countries submitted comments on topics in line with their own national interests. Saint Lucia sought clearer language on ocean acidification, while Saudi Arabia requested a mention that policy to curb emissions “could devalue fossil fuel assets and reduce revenues for fossil fuel exporters.”

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