Why 2007 I.P.C.C. Report Lacked ‘Embers’

A news report on the article co-authored by CLIMATE ANALYTICS Project Coordinator Bill Hare.

Date02 March 2009

February 26, 2009, 4:03 pm

By Andrew C. Revkin

Smith, J. B., S. H. Schneider, M. Oppenheimer, G. W. Yohe, W. Hare, M. D. Mastrandrea, A. Patwardhan, I. Burton, J. Corfee-Morlot, C. H. D. Magadza, H.-M. Füssel, A. B. Pittock, A. Rahman, A. Suarez and J.-P. van Ypersele (2009). “Assessing dangerous climate change through an update of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “reasons for concern” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0812355106

Virginia Mayo/Associated Press Martin Parry, a co-chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, described the report, released in April 2007, from which the “embers” diagram of risk was excluded.

Several authors of the 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the projected effects of global warming now say they regret not pushing harder to include an updated diagram of climate risks in the report. The diagram, known as “burning embers,” is an updated version of one that was a central feature of the panel’s preceding climate report in 2001. The main opposition to including the diagram in 2007, they say, came from officials representing the United States, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

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A diagram left out of the 2007 reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been published in a journal, and shows that risks from rising temperatures are much nearer at hand than was foreseen in 2001. (Credit and caption: PNAS.org Click image to enlarge.)

That frustration led them to seek publication of the climate-risk diagram in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In emails and phone interviews over the past week, several of researchers said the diagram was omitted in favor of written descriptions of levels of risk from increments of warming.

Some scientists thought that the diagram’s smears of color, reflecting gradients of risk, were too subjective. But Stephen H. Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford University who has been involved in writing the I.P.C.C. reports since 1988, said the real opposition came from a bloc of countries that thought the colorful diagram was too incendiary.
From its inception, the I.P.C.C. has been a novel partnership of scientists and diplomats, with countries negotiating the final wording of reports and then formally accepting the studies in periodic plenary sessions.

“Of course words are less powerful than a colorful figure,” Dr. Schneider said in an email.
He and other authors of the report are now naming the countries that rejected any discussion of including the artwork:

Five other I.P.C.C. authors corroborate what Dr. Schneider says below (highlight added; WG2 stands for Working Group 2; TAR stands for Third Assessment Report):

We first presented the revised figure at the WG 2 Plenary and it attracted great interest and many calls to include it. Unfortunately governments of 5 fossil fuel dependent and producing nations opposed it. It was never debated in the Plenary since Chapter 19 materials didn’t get into Plenary debate until 9AM the last day after an all night session and a press conference due in one hour and still the Report hadn’t been finished — nothing controversial was possible as there was no time for a contact group. SO in essence it was a casualty of time. At the Synthesis Plenary there was no time issue, as many countries in writing in advance asked to have it brought back since it was synthetic, and thus even if not appearing in the WG 2 Report, it was still appropriate for the Synthesis, and in addition it was the author’s judgments for graphing what was already approved text — the “reasons for concern” update in words. That did get a floor fight to my memory, and this time if my memory serves, 4 fossil fuel dependent countries accepted the text but refused the figure. Remember, at the UN, consensus means everybody, so a few countries constitute in effect a small successful filibuster. No matter how much New Zealand, small islands states, Canada, Germany, Belgium and the UK said this was an essential diagram, China, the U.S., Russia and the Saudis said it was too much of a “judgment”. But in the TAR it also was a judgment and this was just an update using some of the same authors and the same logic, so their logic was faulty–but their filibuster successful. Hope that helps.

Cheers, Steve

The biggest value of resurrecting the diagram, which ranks dangers for each degree of temperature rise above the mean temperature in 1990, is that it provides a view of the trajectory of climate risks, said Joel Smith, a lead author on the new paper who also was a lead writer on the intergovernmental panel.

“It’s not so much the absolute risk at any one time as where you are over time that matters,” he said. “And for all five of these categories, these colors have migrated closer to zero.”

In an email, Rajendra K. Pachauri, the chairman of the intergovernmental panel, said he was glad the diagram has been resurrected. “Some of the scientists (including some senior functionaries) involved” in the report “were dubious about the scientific validity of the burning embers diagram, and I just could not push it through,” he said. “I am glad that there is a revival of this characterization, which I hope will lead to some discussion and debate.”

Next week, many lead authors of past reports for the climate panel will meet to explore “new science directions” for the next big set of climate reports, which will be produced over the next four years or so.

But the wrangling between scientists and governments over the final product may need a fresh look, as well. In 2007, Dr. Schneider explained to The Times that by involving governments in the final shaping of report summaries since the early 1990’s, the panel, in effect, gives countries some “ownership” of the findings.

Should the countries that end up shaping the final product — and either acting on it or ignoring it — meet to figure out new approaches, as well?

© New York Times