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Roz Pidcock

24.03.2014 | 5:00pm
Media analysisA big UN report on climate change impacts is coming: how is it being reported?
MEDIA ANALYSIS | March 24. 2014. 17:00
A big UN report on climate change impacts is coming: how is it being reported?

Hundreds of governments will convene in Japan tomorrow to discuss a new major UN climate change report. From slowing economic growth to species extinctions to food insecurity, the report reviews climate change’s wide-ranging impacts on humans and the environment.

Last September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first part of the report. It covered the physical science, from extreme rainfall to Arctic ice melt.

Ahead of its official launch on Monday, parts of the media have been previewing the second part of the report on climate change impacts, after it was leaked online a few months ago.

Here’s our rundown of which of what’s been making the pages of our newspapers;

“Immediate and very human” risks

Seth Borenstein for Associated Press gives a succinct rundown of the “immediate and very human” nature of climate change impacts. On the report’s key messages, Borenstein says:

“The big risks and overall effects of global warming are far more immediate and local than scientists once thought. It’s not just about melting ice, threatened animals and plants. It’s about the human problems of hunger, disease, drought, flooding, refugees and war, becoming worse.”

Alister Doyle for Reuters describes how climate change impacts are already being felt across the world, putting pressure on governments to act. Growing risks include food and water security, violence and conflict, health risks, species losses, extreme weather and slowed economic growth.

Speaking in Beijing, Doyle quotes IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri, who says:

“The scientific reasoning for reducing emissions and adapting to climate change is becoming far more compelling.”

Adapting to climate change

On top of limiting future climate change by reducing emissions, we need to find ways to cope with the consequences locked in by past emissions. Chris Field, co-chair of the IPCC’s Working Group 2, which produced the report, tells Reuters:

“Risks are much greater with more warming than less warming. And it doesn’t require 100 percent certainty before you have creative options for moving forwards … there are compelling adaptation options”.

The Reuters piece – reposted by Huffington Post and CBC – gives a slightly less pessimistic impression than one by Tom Bawden for The Independent last week.

Bawden’s run down of the new report covered the major impacts but received criticism from some scientists for “ignoring adaptation and non-climate impacts” and its over dramatic headline, ‘Official prophecy of doom: Global warming will cause widespread conflict, displace millions of people and devastate the global economy’.

Independent Tom Bawden2

Costing impacts

Richard Ingham for Agence France Presse provides a good, all-encompassing overview of the IPCC report’s topline conclusions. But unlike others, the AFP piece includes more detail on what it says about the costs of climate change damages. Ingham says:

“Draft warns costs will spiral with each additional degree, although it is hard to forecast by how much.”

He includes the IPCC’s estimate that 2.5 degrees of warming could cost up to two per cent of GDP. But economists warn these estimates are likely to be on the low side, Ingham adds. He quotes economist Jacob Schewe of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany, who says:

“The assessments that we can do at the moment probably still underestimate the actual impacts of future climate change.”

The article was reposted in The Australian.

Regional Breakdown

As noted by AFP, the new IPCC report goes further than previous ones in terms of projecting regional impacts in greater detail.

A Guardian piece this weekend highlights Asian urban centres as particularly vulnerable, with a combination of poor air quality, overcrowded cities, coastal and urban flooding, famine and sea level rise. Meanwhile, The Age takes a detailed look at the risks for Australia.

Extreme heat

Heatwaves have received a fair bit of attention ahead of the report. Today’s Guardian looks at a new paper on the impact of heatwaves on human health in different parts of the UK. The new study, which The Times also covered today, found the affluent southeast is the least resilient to warming.

Another recent study found that with adaptation, heat-related deaths in cities could be reduced by between 32 and 69 per cent. We reported on the new research here.

Food security

Another topic receiving a fair amount of media attention ahead of the report’s launch is the impact of climate change on crop yields and food security.

Crops UK

The Guardian reported on a paper last week which found heat waves have a negative impact on yields of maize, spring wheat and soybean. The authors explained yields of wheat and soybean may continue to show increased yields for a few more decades before declining, however. That’s because rising carbon dioxide could offset the losses by enhancing plant growth, as has been seen in controlled experiments.

But there’s still a lot of uncertainty about whether this “carbon dioxide fertilisation effect will materialise, the authors tell us. Nevertheless, The Times  reported the research as saying “greenhouse gases will benefit crop yield”, a conclusion the newspaper said is “at odds” with the IPCC report.

Carbon Brief spoke to the authors of the paper, who say the Times misrepresented their work and that the newspaper’s conclusions “fabricate controversy where none actually exists”.


Over the weekend, the Telegraph reported what it called a “dramatic about turn for the UN’s IPCC” on the issue of biofuels. The paper quotes a sentence from the leaked Summary For Policymakers, which says increasing bioenergy crop cultivation “poses risks to ecosystems and biodiversity.”

This is in contrast to the IPCC’s last assessment report, which gave “the green light to large-scale biofuel production”, reports the Telegraph.

Concern over the green credentials of biofuels as alternatives to fossil fuels isn’t new – and the IPCC report will weigh up the evidence on the topic. But some in the media are guilty of over simplifying the debate by lumping together all energy uses of biomass together, Tim Minett, chief executive of CPL Renewables, tells BusinessGreen.

Biofuel _pump

Bioethanol is made from fermenting sugar or starch crops such as corn, sugarcane, or sweet sorghum. Source: Creative Commons

Water resources and the oceans

Saturday was World Water Day. The Guardian covered a UN report warning of the increasing pressure growing demand for water will place on already strained water resources, particularly in emerging and developing countries. Climate change disrupts the water cycle, and is set to make dry places even drier.

A few weeks ago, the Economist looked at the impact human society is having on the health of the world’s oceans. The piece reports:

“[The oceans] produce half the world’s supply of oxygen â?¦ according to a forthcoming report by the IPCC â?¦ concentrations of chlorophyll (which helps makes oxygen) have fallen by 9-12% in 1998-2010 in the North Pacific, Indian and North Atlantic Oceans.”

Along with regions starved of oxygen, oceans getting more acidic and coral reefs dying off in great swathes, this spells rapidly declining health of the world’s oceans.

And that has consequences for regions that depend on oceans for their livelihoods as well as nutrition – something the new IPCC report will look at in more detail. “The salient feature of such a tragedy is that the full cost of damaging the system is not borne by those doing the damage”, reports the Economist.

Primed and ready

The scale of climate change impacts is huge – from heatwaves, to crop production, to sea level rise. And the range of topics covered in our newspapers so far would seem to bear this out. The media is primed – get ready for a more detailed look at some of these issues as delegates in Japan thrash out the exact wording of the Summary for Policymakers – ahead of its official release next Monday.

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