IPCC’s guidance downplays risks in climate emergency

IPCC’s guidance is dangerous in rapidly evolving climate emergency due to time lost for peer review between observing and reporting reality

Introduction: Year by year we are seeing increases in both the basic readings for global warming and in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events attributed to the warming that show we are in the midst of a climate emergency. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is considered by many scientists (and politicians claiming to be guided by the science) to be the ultimate authority on the likely evolution of global warming and the future risks we face from it. However, the IPCC’s guidance in forecasts and predictions has consistently ignored or underestimated the rising levels of catastrophic and existential risk associated with the accelerating increases.

I don’t dispute the IPCC’s science, as the work leading to it is usually meticulous. But, at the same time, their processes add years of bureaucratic and political delay between the observations of reality and the eventually publications of conclusions from those observations. This means that any guidance offered in IPCC reports and assessments is likely to considerably understate the risks, impacts and rates of global warming. The peer review process and sociological factors in the academic/institutional environments most IPCC authors work in lead authors to minimize dramatic and scary risks irrespective of minimal they might be. These thoughts and their implications are detailed in a January 2022 presentation of mine, “Some fundamental issues relating to the science underlying climate policy: The IPCC and COP26 couldn’t help but get it wrong” on the Researchgate repository .

Slide 3 from my January 2022 presentation exploring issues with the reliability of the IPCC's too conservative forecasts for the future evolution of global warming and why it shouldn't be trusted.
Slide 3 from my January 2022 presentation.

The article discussed here is an example of recent observations that should greatly change many presumptions in even the most recent IPCC AR6 report.

Carbonate rocks (e.g., limestone, dolomite) in permafrost zones may be global warming time-bombs for methane release.

The article linked here describes an unexpected observation from satellite scans of methane gas concentrations in the atmosphere over Siberia. As the frozen land warms in spring and summer remarkably high concentrations of methane are associated with geological outcroppings of common calcium carbonate rocks such as limestone and dolomite. Carbon is a significant component of these kinds of rock. Ordinarily this carbon is considered to be quite inert in relationship to short-term climate change. The authors were surprised to discover that largest releases of methane (~ 85 times the greenhouse potential of CO₂ over 20 years) in Siberia — not associated with fossil fuel production — were from these rocky areas. The observed behavior of the methane releases suggests these areas represented a risk of becoming global warming time bombs.

Methane release from carbonate rock formations in the Siberian permafrost area during and after the 2020 heat wave

by Froitzheim et al., PNAS August 10, 2021

ABSTRACT: Anthropogenic global warming may be accelerated by a positive feedback from the mobilization of methane from thawing Arctic permafrost. There are large uncertainties about the size of carbon stocks and the magnitude of possible methane emissions. … Two elongated areas of increased atmospheric methane concentration that appeared during summer coincide with two stripes of Paleozoic carbonates exposed at the southern and northern borders of the Yenisey-Khatanga Basin, a hydrocarbon-bearing sedimentary basin between the Siberian Craton to the south and the Taymyr Fold Belt to the north. [see featured image above] Over the carbonates, soils are thin to nonexistent and wetlands are scarce. The maxima are thus unlikely to be caused by microbial methane from soils or wetlands. We suggest that gas hydrates in fractures and pockets of the carbonate rocks in the permafrost zone became unstable due to warming from the surface. This process may add unknown quantities of methane to the atmosphere in the near future [my emphasis].

Read the complete article….

When the IPCC’s AR6 was being drafted its authors never encountered or even contemplated many of the discoveries made like the above, or the kinds of NB4 extreme weather events observed over the last 4-6 years (they were “unknown unknowns”)

The IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) 6th Assessment Report that informed COP26 totally missed this risk — the abrupt release of prodigious amounts of greenhouse methane gas from permafrost. They also missed or downplayed many other risks that have only begun to appear as the climate emergency accelerates. My graphical essay, “Some fundamental issues relating to the science underlying climate policy: The IPCC and COP26 couldn’t help but get it wrong“, documents the fact that the IPCC’s claim to provide the best and most stringently peer reviewed scientific understanding of basic physics of Earth’s Climate System is true. However, their scientific methodology is deeply flawed when applied to predicting the rapidly evolving and changing behavior of the large and complexly dynamical Climate System:

  • By the time the IPCC’s deeply bureaucratic and political review processes result in publication, the work is based on the reality of a world that existed several years ago, not the reality of today’s increasingly rapidly changing world
  • Research and publishing in academic and institutional environments are deeply (but most subliminally) constrained from publishing novel ideas and scary stuff. This is called “scientific reticence” — a situation that can only be amplified by the requirements that publications are approved by their political sponsors.
  • Finally, the Climate System involves non-linear and often chaotic feedback interactions of many variables – some of them not at all well understood. Many climatologists come from backgrounds in physics and mathematical modeling is very helpful for understanding the behaviors of mostly linear systems. Climate behavior in the antithesis to this kind of system. Where climate is concerned, modeling is useful for understand what can happen under specific circumstances where most of the variables are controlled. It is inappropriate for long term forecasting.

However, even taking the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report at face value: “The best peer-reviewed science we have” shows unambiguously that if we don’t stop and reverse global warming very soon, human life on the planet will be faced with a growing crescendo of extreme weather events and climate hell within a few decades at the most.

Today, we are already seeing the beginnings of this crescendo! But there is only one mention of a few sentences in the entire 3949 pages of the full IPCC report of the realistic possibility that if we fail to stop the warming, that runaway global warming will lead to the global mass extinction of most complex life.

The point raised here is that the scientific methodology underlying IPCC reports cannot help but underestimate and down play the full range and magnitudes of risks humans face from the rapidly accelerating climate emergency. This also provides great cover for the fossil fuel industry special interests, the humbugging puppets in our governments that keep spruiking the message that we shouldn’t look up, because there is noting there to see, and the much too compliant press.

To conclude, if we are to find and execute any way to stop and reverse the still accelerating warming of our only planet, we have to begin by replacing all the humbugging puppets in our Federal Government with people able to rationally understand the risks we face who also have the gumption to put acting on the climate emergency as their first order of business if elected to Parliament.

Our Vote Climate One Traffic Light Voting Guide will help you elect candidates in your electorate who are most likely to meet these critria, and equally identify LNP Coalition Members and fellow travelers and those whose preferences might flow in a way that would elect/reelect one of the humbuggers.

Views expressed in this post are those of its author(s), not necessarily all Vote Climate One members.