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IPCC says adapt and mitigate to tackle climate risks

  • 03 Apr 2014, 16:55
  • Roz Pidcock

The front page article of today's Spectator claims the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has "updated" its position on climate change, to accept that "climate change is now a question of adaptation".

Author Matt Ridley suggests that this is such a departure from the UN climate panel's previous findings that its conclusions are now in line with those of climate skeptic lobbyist Lord Lawson.

Lawson stresses "the need to adapt to climate change, rather than throw public money at futile attempts to prevent it", according to Ridley, a fellow skeptic campaigner.

It's worth taking this with a pinch of salt. If the IPCC has said more about adaptation in the last week, it's because its most recent report is specifically about adaptation. That doesn't mean mitigation has been abandoned as Lord Lawson would like it to be - indeed, in a week's time the IPCC will publish another report dedicated to the mitigation he so scorns.

Heavy on adaptation

The crux of Ridley's argument is that adapting to climate change is given more prominence in the latest IPCC report than in past ones.

He says:

"[T]he document itself … emphasised, again and again, the need to adapt to climate change … Whereas the last report had two pages on adaptation, this one has four chapters."

In fact, there are six chapters which specifically mention adaptation in their titles in the new report, not four. The previous report in 2007 had two chapters, not two pages.

But Ridley is right to point out that there is a lot more research into adapting to climate change now than there was seven years ago, when the IPCC last published an assessment report. As the new report's Summary for Policymakers ( SPM) says:

"The number of scientific publications available … more than doubled between 2005 and 2010, with especially rapid increases in publications related to adaptation."

But if the newest IPCC report is heavy on adaptation, there's a more basic reason: It's a report about adaptation. The title of the report is "Climate Change 2014: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability".

In a week's time, the IPCC will publish a complimentary report: "Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of climate change". That one will no doubt mention mitigation more than adaptation.

Word count

In linking the IPCC to Lawson's views, Ridley implies that the IPCC's engagement with adaptation comes at the expense of mitigation - an observation he suggests marks a step change in IPCC "wisdom".

To support his argument, Ridley counts the number of times both words are mentioned in the press release for the new report, concluding:

"[T]he word 'adaptation' occurred ten times, the word 'mitigation' not at all."

Again, this is perhaps not surprising for a report about adaptation, not mitigation.

An alternative word count suggests the IPCC's emphasis hasn't changed much in the seven years since its last report. In the summary for the latest report, the word "adaptation" appears 114 times, compared to 24 for "mitigation" - around 4.5 times more mentions.

In the summary for the 2007 report, both words get a lot fewer mentions - 34 for "adaptation" and six for "mitigation". Relatively speaking, that's about 5.5 times more mentions of "adaptation" than "mitigation". Not much has changed, by this measure at least.

These word counts might be fun, but they don't tell us very much about the IPCC's conclusions. So what does the new report actually say?

The IPCC discusses mitigation and adaptation alongside each other

A quick read of the new SPM reveals a host of places where the IPCC says mitigation is needed alongside adaptation to limit the impacts of climate change. For example:

"[The new report] considers how impacts and risks related to climate change can be reduced and managed through adaptation and mitigation."

Or:

"Managing the risks of climate change involves adaptation and mitigation decisions with  implications for future generations, economies, and environments."

Or:

"Climate-resilient pathways are sustainable-development trajectories that combine adaptation and mitigation to reduce climate change and its impacts."

All of which are just different ways of saying that both adaptation and mitigation will be needed to manage the risks of climate change.

This is a very similar conclusion to the IPCC's 2007 report, which concluded: "A portfolio of adaptation and mitigation measures can diminish the risks associated with climate change."

Limits to adaptation

The IPCC warns cutting emissions is important because adaptation won't be enough on its own.  Professor Chris Field, co-chair on the new report, says it's unrealistic to think we can adapt indefinitely:

"With high levels of warming that result from continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions, risks will be challenging to manage and even serious, sustained investments in adaptation will face limits."

Managing the risks from climate change means working to bring emissions down, and in the meantime, adaptation can help prepare for the impacts we can no longer avoid. As Professor Vincente Barros, co-chair of the new report, explains:

"Part of the reason adaptation is so important is that the world faces a host of risks from climate change already baked into the climate system, due to past emissions and existing infrastructure."

On top of reducing the immediate risks from climate change, adaptation can help build a more efficient, sustainable and resilient society, the SPM explains:

"Available strategies and actions can increase resilience across a range of possible future climates while helping to improve human health, livelihoods, social and economic well-being, and environmental quality."

Too alarmist, or toning down the alarm?

You might almost be tempted to feel sorry for the IPCC, which apparently can't win.

Earlier this week, Professor Richard Tol criticised the new SPM for being "alarmist" - because "adaptation and clever development" has "completely disappeared". On the other hand, Matt Ridley praises the new report because it "[emphasises], again and again, the need to adapt to climate change" and has "toned down the alarm considerably."

Ridley, Tol and Nigel Lawson are all associated with the climate skeptic thinktank the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

It's interesting that Ridley is trying to find common ground between the IPCC and Lord Lawson. But the IPCC is quite clear that managing climate risks means preventing the climate change we can prevent, and adapting to the climate change we can't. Lord Lawson's view, on the other hand, is that mitigation is a "futile" waste of public money.

 

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