We’ve had a policy of (mostly) not commenting on the various drafts, misquotes and mistaken readings of the Fourth Assessment report (“AR4” to those in the acronym loop) of the IPCC. Now that the summary for policy makers (or “SPM”) has actually been published though, we can discuss the substance of the report without having to worry that the details will change. This post will only be our first cut at talking about the whole report. We plan on going chapter by chapter, hopefully explaining the key issues and the remaining key uncertainties over the next few months. This report will be referenced repeatedly over the next few years, and so we can take the time to do a reasonable job explaining what’s in it and why.
First of all, given the science that has been done since the Third Assessment Report (“TAR”) of 2001 – much of which has been discussed here – no one should be surprised that AR4 comes to a stronger conclusion. In particular, the report concludes that human influences on climate are ‘very likely’ (> 90% chance) already detectable in observational record; increased from ‘likely’ (> 66% chance) in the TAR. Key results here include the simulations for the 20th Century by the latest state-of-the-art climate models which demonstrate that recent trends cannot be explained without including human-related increases in greenhouse gases, and consistent evidence for ocean heating, sea ice melting, glacier melting and ecosystem shifts. This makes the projections of larger continued changes ‘in the pipeline’ (particularly under “business as usual” scenarios) essentially indisputable.
Given all of the hoopla since the TAR, many of us were curious to see what the new report would have to say about paleoclimate reconstructions of the past 1000 years. Contrarians will no doubt be disappointed here. The conclusions have been significantly strengthened relative to what was in the TAR, something that of course should have been expected given the numerous additional studies that have since been done that all point in the same direction. The conclusion that large-scale recent warmth likely exceeds the range seen in past centuries has been extended from the past 1000 years in the TAR, to the past 1300 years in the current report, and the confidence in this conclusion has been upped from “likely” in the TAR to “very likely” in the current report for the past half millennium. This is just one of the many independent lines of evidence now pointing towards a clear anthropogenic influence on climate, but given all of the others, the paleoclimate reconstructions are now even less the central pillar of evidence for the human influence on climate than they have been incorrectly portrayed to be.
The uncertainties in the science mainly involve the precise nature of the changes to be expected, particularly with respect to sea level rise, El Niño changes and regional hydrological change – drought frequency and snow pack melt, mid-latitude storms, and of course, hurricanes. It can be fun parsing the discussions on these topics (and we expect there will be substantial press comment on them), but that shouldn’t distract from the main and far more solid conclusions above.
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
“Dynamical processes related to ice flow not included in current models but suggested by recent observations could increase the vulnerability of the ice sheets to warming, increasing future sea level rise. Understanding of these processes is limited and there is no consensus on their magnitude.”
Note that some media have been comparing apples with pears here: they claimed IPCC has reduced its upper sea level limit from 88 to 59 cm, but the former number from the TAR did include this ice dynamics uncertainty, while the latter from the AR4 does not, precisely because this issue is now considered more uncertain and possibly more serious than before.
On the hurricane/tropical strorm issue, the language is quite nuanced, as one might expect from a consensus document. The link between SST and tropical storm intensity is clearly acknowledged, but so is the gap between model projections and analyses of cyclone observations. “The apparent increase in the proportion of very intense storms since 1970 in some regions is much larger than simulated by current models for that period.”
We will address some of these issues and how well we think they did in specific posts over the next few weeks. There’s a lot of stuff here, and even we need time to digest it!