Politics, Climate Change – Impacts and the IPCC

Climate Change – Impacts and the apolitical nature of reports.


The IPCC on the 2nd November 2014 issued a press release: ‘Concluding instalment of the Fifth Assessment Report: Climate change threatens irreversible and dangerous impacts, but options exist to limit its effects’.



Their first statement is:
“Human influence on the climate system is clear and growing, with impacts observed on all continents. If left unchecked, climate change will increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. However, options are available to adapt to climate change and implementing stringent mitigations activities can ensure that the impacts of climate change remain within a manageable range, creating a brighter and more sustainable future” (p1).


This much we know from the 5th assessment report, but this release is not about bringing anything new to the table, it is a synthesis of the 3 working group reports published earlier in 2014.


The IPCC feel that progress for human development can still be made if there is the will to do it based on the knowledge brought forward by the thousands of scientists. In this they are placing faith in the ‘Translational model’ of science and policy (Wynne 2010). The ‘Translational’ model assumes that what all policy makers need, and by inference the public, is an understanding of the science to enact change.


However this does not work because as Mike Hulme points out, climate change is an ‘idea’ and not a scientific ‘fact’ for many people. Hulme (2009) and Wynne (2010) argue that what is at issue is not the propositional claims of climate science, but the conditional and epistemic nature of all science which then relates to the complex and often politicised relationship between science and policy; see also Carlisle (2001) in health inequalities and Pielke’s ‘iron law’ of climate policy (2010). Science ‘produces’ knowledge but it is conditional, i.e. always open to be refuted and it uses propositions, not certainty, in its statements. In reality, we accept as fact science’s propositions as the evidence stacks up and refutations achieve less success – who doubts the laws of gravity, a heliocentric cosmos, or aerodynamics?


Politicised uncertainty applies especially to environmental science, which Douglas discussed as far back as 1970. Goldenburg (2010), Ward (2012), Klein (2014) and Marshall (2014) outline the work of the Heartland Institute, the Cato institute, influential politicians and Tea Party members in regard to attempts to refute climate science.


The IPCC point out current impacts on the least developed countries and argue for adaption through cooperative responses. They also argue that adaptation is not enough and that reduction in emissions is still required. However, the report is written within the frame of reference of growth based capitalism, the language of adaption and mitigation is used within this growth paradigm. In other words, the argument is that capitalism requires collective action to change what it does, but not a root and branch reform of the process itself.


The time scale for capitalism to correct its market failures is now measured in decades:


“We have little time before the window of opportunity to stay within 2 degrees C of warming closes. To keep a good chance of staying below 2C, and at manageable costs, our emissions should drop by 40 to 70 percent globally between 2010 and 2050, falling to zero or below by 2100. We have that opportunity, and the choice is in our hands.” (p2).


A counter to this is the fossil fuel lobby and industries which continue to get billions of dollars in subsidies to extract fossil fuels. One measure has this subsidy at between $544 billion and $2 trillion. So while we have scientists telling us we must reduce emissions on one side, we have a very powerful vested interests and billions of dollars invested in continuing that extraction. Populations however must expect rises in energy prices if these subsidies are cut. This pertains if we do not also address wealth and income redistribution. For example In June 2014 Indonesia increased petrol prices by 44% to cut its annual subsidy bill of $20 billion. These sorts of increases hit the poor disproportionally while it is the rich who use cars more and thus benefit from subsidies. This could be addressed using tax transfers and other redistributive measures but redistribution is not on the agenda in many countries.


It perhaps is not the role of the IPCC to delve into politics, however we must make those links because the science can only take us so far. The broader arguments are cultural, moral and political and we must decide which to go.


















Carlisle, S. (2001) Inequalities in Health: contested explanations, shifting discourses and ambiguous polices. Critical Public Health 11 (3)


Douglas, M. (1970) Environments at Risk. Times Literary Supplement. 23 (4th June): 124-7


Goldenburg, S. (2012) Climate Scientist Peter Gleick admits he leaked Heartland Institute documents. The Guardian. 21st February. [online] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/feb/21/peter-gleick-admits-leaked-heartland-institute-documents


Hulme, M. (2009) Why we disagree about Climate Change. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.


Pielke, R. (2010) The Climate Fix in Borofsky , Y. (2010) YaleE360: Pielke’s “Iron law” of Climate Policy [online] http://thebreakthrough.org/blog/2010/10/yalee360_pielkes_iron_law_of_c.shtml


Ward, B. (2012) Heartland Institute leak exposes strategies of climate attack machine. The Guardian. 21st February. [online] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/feb/21/heartland-institute-leak-climate-attack?intcmp=239


Wynne, B. (2010) Strange Weather, Again: Climate Science as Political Art. Theory Culture and Society. 27 (2-13): 289-305



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