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Robin Webster

09.04.2014 | 9:00am
IPCCIt’’s a bit of a downer: can climate change be a good news story?
IPCC | April 9. 2014. 9:00
It’’s a bit of a downer: can climate change be a good news story?

War, famine and pestilence. Threats to security, food and humankind. Overwhelming effects. 

Some commentators have accused the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s latest mega-report into the impact of climate change of focusing on the dark side without reflecting the good things that might emerge.

But lead authors argue they looked for the benefits of a changing climate – they just didn’t find that many.

Last week’s report from the IPCC’s Working Group 2 collates all the available research on how climate change is affecting natural systems and human societies around the world – and how it’s likely to in the future. The impacts of a changing climate – on food prices, human security, water availability – could be be “severe, pervasive and irreversible,” it concludes.

The report also identifies some ‘winners’ as the climate warms – though there are expected to be fewer of them, and the positive scenarios are less certain.

Despite this outcome, some media outlets have been keen to emphasise the upsides. But does this really represent the weight of opinion in the report?

Good news for the Arctic?

Warming of the Arctic will ” trigger a boom in tourism”, said the Times in a preview of the IPCC’s report. Its article also pointed out that warming could benefit whale populations and the oil and gas industry.

The Times gave less prominence to the downsides for the region, however. The IPCC says there’s a “high risk” that Arctic tundra could experience “abrupt and irreversible regional-scale change” under higher emission scenarios.

It’s possible that that this could cause more climate change, as carbon is released from the frozen ground, known as permafrost, into the atmosphere. Permafrost thaw could also have negative consequences for Arctic communities and infrastructure, where infrastructure is built on the permanently frozen ground, and increase pollution in the area.

Professor David Vaughan, Director of Science at the British Antarctic Survey, told Carbon Brief:

“… in almost every case, even down to the level of specific communities, there are likely to be winners and losers almost living next door to one another.”

Good news for UK fish?

In another piece, the Times highlighted the positive benefits of global warming for UK fisheries. Stocks in the North Atlantic could increase in a “global reshuffle” of fish species, it reported, as marine species migrate from the Equator in search of cooler waters.

The IPCC’s summary report concludes that species richness and fisheries catch potential are likely to increase at mid and high latitudes – which could benefit places like the UK.

But impacts elsewhere are likely to be less positive, something that the Times didn’t mention. In some tropical regions, livelihoods are set to be threatened as fish and invertebrates migrate north and south to escape uncomfortably warming seas. This trend is likely to combine with pre-existing threats – like overfishing – meaning that vulnerable communities could come under even greater pressure.

Good news for crops?

Of course, the media always want to find a counterintuitive example. Like another Times article, published a couple of weeks ago, that reported greenhouse gas rises will “boost crop yield.”

Scientists who did the research called the piece “misleading”, however – as we examined in more detail. On the whole climate change is expected to have an unfavourable impact on food production. The IPCC says:

“Based on many studies covering a wide range of regions and crops, negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts.”

We tried to find them…

The IPCC has a remit to investigate the positives as well as the negatives of climate change. Monday’s report “evaluates how patterns of risks and potential benefits are shifting due to climate change,” it says.

Lead author Chris Field put it succinctly. He told journalists:

“It is true that we can’t find many benefits of climate change and I believe it’s because there aren’t many benefits, even though we tried really hard to find them.”

The report itself says that climate change will amplify existing risks and create new risks for natural and human systems. It adds that “to a lesser extent”, climate change is projected to have some “potential benefits” – but it makes it clear they don’t dominate.

The challenges of acting on a downer 

Field also commented that “climate change is as rich with opportunity as it is with danger” – but that it’s difficult for individuals and countries to take serious action as “the agenda is such a downer”.

But there is a positive angle. Avoiding the worst effects of climate change has to be a good thing. Last week’s IPCC report focuses on the potential for humanity to avoid the worst impacts of climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and minimising the bad effects through adaptation.

It emphasises there’s a risk humanity is going to experience the worst effects – but, at this stage, it isn’t a given.

To avoid the worst effects, however, governments and populations need to engage with the full scientific evidence base on climate change. The media probably does too. The publication next week of the IPCC’s third report, looking at how humanity can deal with climate change, may bring that issue to the fore.

THE BRIEF

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THE BRIEF

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Get a Daily or Weekly round-up of all the important articles and papers selected by Carbon Brief by email. By entering your email address you agree for your data to be handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy.