The IPCC Fourth Assessment SPM

The process of finalising the SPM (which is well described here and here) is something that can seem a little odd. Government representatives from all participating nations take the draft summary (as written by the lead authors of the individual chapters) and discuss whether the text truly reflects the underlying science in the main report. The key here is to note that what the lead authors originally came up with is not necessarily the clearest or least ambiguous language, and so the governments (for whom the report is being written) are perfectly entitled to insist that the language be modified so that the conclusions are correctly understood by them and the scientists. It is also key to note that the scientists have to be happy that the final language that is agreed conforms with the underlying science in the technical chapters. The advantage of this process is that everyone involved is absolutely clear what is meant by each sentence. Recall after the National Academies report on surface temperature reconstructions there was much discussion about the definition of ‘plausible’. That kind of thing shouldn’t happen with AR4.

The SPM process also serves a very useful political purpose. Specifically, it allows the governments involved to feel as though they ‘own’ part of the report. This makes it very difficult to later turn around and dismiss it on the basis that it was all written by someone else. This gives the governments a vested interest in making this report as good as it can be (given the uncertainties). There are in fact plenty of safeguards (not least the scientists present) to ensure that the report is not slanted in any one preferred direction. However, the downside is that it can mistakenly appear as if the whole summary is simply up for negotiation. That would be a false conclusion – the negotiations, such as they are, are in fact heavily constrained by the underlying science.

Finally, a few people have asked why the SPM is being released now while the main report is not due to be published for a couple of months. There are a number of reasons – firstly, the Paris meeting has been such a public affair that holding back the SPM until the main report is ready is probably pointless. For the main report itself, it had not yet been proof-read, and there has not yet been enough time to include observational data up until the end of 2006. One final point is that improvements in the clarity of the language from the SPM should be propagated back to the individual chapters in order to remove any superficial ambiguity. The science content will not change.

Had it been up to us, we’d have tried to get everything together so that they could be released at the same time, but maybe that would have been impossible. We note that Arctic Climate Impact Assessment in 2004 also had a similar procedure – which lead to some confusion initially since statements in the summary were not referenced.

How good have previous IPCC reports been at projecting the future? Actually, over the last 16 years (since the first report in 1990), they’ve been remarkably good for CO2 changes, temperature changes but actually underpredicted sea level changes.

When it comes to specific discussions, the two that are going to be mostly in the news are the projections of sea level rise and hurricanes. These issues contain a number of “known unknowns” – things that we know we don’t know. For sea level rise the unknown is how large an effect dynamic shifts in the ice sheets will be. These dynamic changes have already been observed, but are outside the range of what the ice sheet models can deal with (see this previous discussion). That means that their contribution to sea level rise is rather uncertain, but with the uncertainty all on the side of making things worse (see this recent paper for an assessment (Rahmstorf , Science 2007)). The language in the SPM acknowledges that stating

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