The recently released Fifth Assessment Report from the International Panel on Climate Change paints a depressing picture of the likely impacts that climate change is likely to have on both human and natural systems in the coming decades. It has been called alarmist, and a prophecy of doom by many in the mainstream media, yet on reading the summary for policy makers I found this report to be quite moderate in its forecasts of potential future impacts.
Why the difference in opinion? On reflection I think it has a lot to do with different perceptions of the future. The mainstream media tends to view the future in present day terms, and assumes that the rules and the structure of society will remain essentially the same as they are today. However it is becoming increasingly obvious that there are going to have to be major changes in the way we relate to the Earth over the next few decades. When we accept that change is inevitable, rather than seeing the framework of society as unchanging, then it becomes obvious that the IPCC report does not go far enough in portraying the likely future upheaval to our familiar world.
What this report does do very well is to identify the likely impacts that climate change will have on our planet over the next century. While I believe it underestimates the likely severity of many of these impacts, the report is comprehensive in its analysis of both the primary and secondary impacts of climate change. For example it details the likelihood of potential human conflict arising from climate change, as well as the potential effects that it will have on different ecosystems around the world. The report also details many of the feedbacks built into the climate system, such as the ice albedo effect, whereby sea ice melting in the arctic leads to a greater area of open ocean. Open water absorbs considerably more solar radiation than the ice surface, leading to warmer ocean temperatures and thus more ice melt; a classic example of a positive feedback loop.
However as I read this report another thought dawned on me. It was brought home by one diagram showing the estimated change in annual fish catch by 2060. This diagram clearly shows a decline in traditional fishing grounds, but it also shows large areas of the ocean as having increased potential for fish catch, which is completely counterintuitive and is contrary to nearly all predictions. The reason for this discrepancy is revealed in the caption, which states that neither the effects of overfishing or ocean acidification are considered in the diagram. To me, this exposes a fatal flaw in the IPCC process; it only considers climate related impacts in its analysis.
Today we humans are putting pressure on almost every ecosystem on Earth in a variety of different ways. We are polluting the ocean and the atmosphere, depleting aquifers that will take millennia to refill, causing massive deforestation in many parts of the world, depleting soils that cannot be replaced over any meaningful timeframe, and generally laying siege to the planet in a thousand different ways. Climate change is only a symptom of a very much larger problem, although admittedly its effects are more widespread than many of the other environmental problems we have created.
The IPCC report represents a distillation of the work of hundreds of dedicated scientists around the world. However it suffers from having a limited focus. Certainly we need to know about climate change and develop strategies for mitigation of its worst effects; that goes without saying. However climate change needs to be viewed in context. It is not an isolated problem; it is one of many self-inflicted problems that we are currently facing. Unless we consider the broader overall context, we are unlikely to be able to take effective action aimed at tackling the environmental crisis. Analysis of individual components of this crisis in isolation reflects the same kind of constrained thinking which has ultimately lead to many of the problems we now face.
We need to deal with environmental issues holistically, recognising that they are all interrelated. With this in mind I would suggest a broader mandate and a new name for the IPCC. I would like to see an International Panel on Human Environmental Impacts (IPHEI), which would look at the environmental impact of all human activities. It is only by looking at our impacts in this way that we can get a true picture of our impact on the Earth system, and arrive at viable solutions and mitigation strategies.
Bearing in mind that scientists are only a part of the IPCC process, and that all wording in each of the IPCC reports needs to be signed off by governments around the world, it is unlikely that many countries would willingly agree to this proposal, since it would potentially highlight activities which they would rather not discuss. However earth processes do not operate in isolation; they work as systems, governed by interactions and feedbacks between the different components. It is only by looking at human activities from a systemic perspective that we will be able to see our true impact on the Earth. To understand the true threats to our society and to the planet we need a complete accounting. Only then will we be able to make the decisions that will allow us to secure our common future.