Friday's release of a key summary on the state of climate change science drew strong reactions from those already concerned about the state of the planet.
But at least in the United States, the press of other current events may keep the U.N Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) most recent report from gaining the attention of policymakers and the public, experts said Friday.
"Right now, the world is paying attention to how to figure out chemical weapons in Syria and the prospect of the U.S. government shutting down Oct. 1, and what's happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan," said Paul Wapner, an American University professor who tracks environmental politics and activism around the world.
Another hurdle the IPCC's fifth assessment report faces, in terms of grabbing public and policymaker attention, is that the U.N. body has not significantly altered its findings.
While scientists continue to refine and improve their understanding of climate science, offering more certainty in parts of the science, such as sea-level rise and man's fingerprint on a changing climate system, the panel's key message is the same.
From a scientific perspective, this is a positive, but incremental updates do not tend to capture public attention.
At New York City's Climate Week last week, former Republican Rep. Bob Inglis, who now serves as the director of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, which aims to speak to conservatives about climate change, called the report "another useful reminder" of the threats posed by warming temperatures.
"We're educated by repetition," Inglis said.
Doubters continue to doubt
Yet for those who have dismissed the science of climate change in the past, additional data and increasing scientific certainty are not mind-changing.
"For many people who oppose climate action, I don't think it is primarily an evidence-based point of view," said Daniel Fiorino, who directs American University's Center for Environmental Policy.
This was perhaps borne out in Friday's statement by House Science, Space and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who attacked the report as a vehicle for those with a regulatory agenda.
"The 'summary for policymakers' released this morning in Stockholm appears to be designed to provide cover for excessive regulations and carbon taxes," Smith said.
For those concerned about climate change's impact on the Earth system, the report summary released Friday held several key messages (ClimateWire, Sept. 27).
One was the introduction of what is often referred to as a carbon budget, or a limit on how much carbon dioxide can be emitted, in total, in order to keep warming within the 2-degree-Celsius target set by the international community.
This target was set because keeping warming underneath the 2-degree threshold would limit the negative effects of climate change.
To stay within that limit, the summary estimated, total carbon emissions need to be kept under 1 trillion metric tons.
Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have already emitted about 531 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, the report says -- leaving the world with 469 billion metric tons of CO2 left to emit.
"At current rates of CO2 emissions (about 9.5 gigatons of carbon per year), we will hurtle past the 2 degree Celsius carbon budget in less than 50 years," Peter Frumhoff, science and policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in a blog post reaction to the summary.
Hope for more awareness by governments
Ambassador Marlene Moses, chairwoman of the Alliance of Small Island States, which faces the threat of climate change-induced sea-level rise, offered a vigorous response to the report summary, which increased the levels of sea-level rise projected by 2100.
"The latest research further confirms that governments need to put forward more ambitious emissions reduction targets as soon as possible," Moses said. "We think redoubling our efforts to enable all parties to take more ambitious action domestically can restore trust in the process and increase the chances of securing a new international climate agreement."
Even if the report does not do much to sway public opinion, said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, it may at least drive governments to take action.
"This report is likely to ... inform governments around the world about the nature, likelihood and potential severity of climate change," Leiserowitz wrote in an email.
At the same time, with the publication of this most recent scientific report, a number of scientists, including those involved in the IPCC process, are wondering if the body has outlived its usefulness.
In a Sept. 18 editorial headlined "The final assessment," the journal Nature called for "nimbler, more relevant" research on problems of "political interest."
The IPCC's governing body makes the decisions on the need for future reports. Scientists, though, will add their input this December at a debate on the report's future slated for the American Geophysical Union's annual conference in San Francisco.
Reporter Lisa Friedman contributed.
Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.E&E Publishing is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy issues. Click here to start a free trial to E&E's information services.
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