Scientists fear that their last-ditch climate warnings are going unheeded amid international turmoil caused by the war in Ukraine, and soaring energy prices.
The third segment of the landmark scientific report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – which could be the last comprehensive assessment of climate science to be published while there is still time to avoid the worst ravages of climate breakdown – will be published on Monday, warning that the world is not shifting quickly enough to a low-carbon economy.
But the previous instalment of the vast report – known as working group 2 of the IPCC – was published a month ago, just as Russia invaded Ukraine, and received only muted attention, despite warning of catastrophic and irreversible upheavals that can only narrowly be avoided by urgent action now. Scientists told the Observer that Monday’s fresh scientific warning must spur governments to belated action.
Deborah Brosnan, adjunct professor of biology at Virginia Tech University in the US and a scientific consultant, told the Observer: “That [working group 2] report was widely anticipated, but completely ignored. Eclipsed mostly by the war in Ukraine, and domestic issues such as inflation, most major media have barely reported let alone analysed the findings.”
She said people were shocked by the Ukraine war, and concerned about soaring prices, but that the climate crisis also needed urgent attention. “The war in Ukraine is a terrible tragedy playing out before our eyes, and families rightly fear being pushed into poverty by inflation. Yet we seem blind to the fact that an even larger and existential crisis is already unfolding today – one that will result in a global humanitarian crisis and on a scale never seen before.”
Daniela Schmidt, professor at Bristol University and one of the lead authors of the working group 2 report, said the world’s current upheavals show how vulnerable we are to the impacts of the climate crisis, already being felt. Policymakers should consider where their resources are allocated, she advised. “Due to the geopolitical challenges, little political capacity is spent on climate action, and vast amounts of funding are allocated to defence,” she told the Observer.
“[But] the current situation also clearly shows people’s widespread vulnerability to climate change.”
Governments have at least been waking up to the problem behind the scenes, said Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics.
“The IPCC report did struggle to gain attention. But while public discussion may have been muted, governments around the world are now studying the details of the report, and particularly its findings about how to make countries, companies and communities more resilient to those consequences of climate change that cannot now be avoided,” Ward said.
The report, due to be published ,Monday’s will deal with ways governments and the public can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including greater use of renewable energy, growing trees and cutting-edge technology to suck carbon from the air. But its warnings – that the world is failing to deploy these methods at the scale required to limit global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels – will be muted by the bureaucracy of the IPCC’s processes.
The report itself – part 3 of the sixth comprehensive assessment of climate science to be published by the IPCC since its foundation in 1988 – is based on thousands of scientific papers from the last seven years. But the key document published on Monday, the summary for policymakers, could be as short as 20 to 30 pages, consisting of a series of short messages and data.
These messages are subject to intense wrangling by both scientists and governments. Under the IPCC methods, all governments have the right to make changes to the final summary – and some are exercising those rights by toning down findings and vetoing some of the strongest statements.
Saudi Arabia, India, China and a few other countries have sought to make changes that would weaken the final warnings, the Observer understands. Some governments are anxious to avoid policy advice such as cutting subsidies to fossil fuels, even though these are widely espoused by leading authorities.This process of refinement – which has also been a complaint in the previous chapters of the IPCC assessment – is defended by some, as producing a document that all governments must “own”, as they have all had input. But many scientists are growing increasingly frustrated, as it produces a conservative and sometimes watered down document that many feel does not reflect the urgency and shocking nature of the threat.