IPCC says adapt and mitigate to tackle climate risks
- 03 Apr 2014, 16:55
- Roz Pidcock
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
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
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
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.
"[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
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
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 (
"The number of
scientific publications available … more than doubled between 2005
and 2010, with especially rapid increases in publications related
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
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
"[The new report]
considers how impacts and risks related to climate change can be
reduced and managed through adaptation and mitigation."
"Managing the risks of
climate change involves adaptation and mitigation decisions
with implications for future generations, economies,
pathways are sustainable-development trajectories that combine
adaptation and mitigation to reduce climate change and its
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
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:
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
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,
"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:
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
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
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