United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Publishes Assessment Report

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Publication date: 
9 April 2014

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a summary report for policymakers which outlines the findings in the fifth of a series of assessment reports.  The studies address the current state of scientific knowledge relevant to climate change.  Topics covered include assessment and risk management, observed impacts, and building resilience.  Vulnerability and exposure to human and natural systems, impacts of current and future climate change and potential for adaptation are also addressed in the most recent summary report.  Oceans, poverty and security issues as well as planning activities are also addressed. The final report will be available in the fall of 2014. 

The IPCC is an international body that is open to all members of the United Nations and World Meteorological Organization (WMO) that conducts assessments of climate change.  Established by the United Nations Environmental Programme and the WMO, the IPCC is focused on providing scientific information as well as socio-economic impacts of climate change.  The summary report was published by Working Group II of the IPCC co-chaired by Vincent Barros and Chris Field.

The IPCC developed assessments of impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.  Previous working groups have examined the risks of extreme weather events and disasters to advance climate change adaptation.  The latest report addresses global, sectorial and regional aspects of climate change and has an increased focus on the societal impacts and responses to climate change. 

“In recent decades, changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans,” the report notes.  Evidence of this includes changing precipitation patterns which alter hydrological systems and affect water resources. Marine and terrestrial species have shifted their geographic ranges and species’ interactions with their environment have changed in response to climate change. 

The report refers to crop yield, public health, and vulnerability in terms of exposure to climate and non-climate factors.  Effects of extreme climate activity including droughts, floods, and wildfires are presented as multidimensional issues that are felt by society.  Such hazards indirectly affect large population due to reductions in yields causing increased food prices, food insecurity, and the compromise of agriculture practices. 

Regarding adaptation, the report notes that urban planning processes are beginning to include adaptation plans and are beginning to integrate or consider climate-change factors.  Adaptation is an iterative risk management process and “people and knowledge shape the process and its outcomes.”  Future risks and opportunities are presented across sectors and include risks due to flooding, storm surges and sea level rises.  Systemic risks due to extreme weather are also described as causing a breakdown of critical infrastructure services including electricity and water supply. 

“Global economic impacts from climate change are difficult to estimate,” the report states.  Furthermore “for most economic sectors, the impacts of drivers such as changes in population, age structure, income, technology, relative prices, lifestyle, regulation, and governance are projected to be large relative to the impacts of climate change.”

To build resilience the report demonstrates that place- and context-specific adaptation practices are necessary.  There is no single approach across all sectors or settings that could be used to reduce risks of climate change.  Preventing climate vulnerability and changing risk perception can benefit social and economic factors as well as environmental quality. 

“Prospects for climate-resilient pathways for sustainable development are related fundamentally to what the world accomplishes with climate change mitigation…. Greater rates and magnitude of climate change increase the likelihood of exceeding adaptation limits,” the report states.  Strategic actions that enable climate resilient pathways can affect economic, technological and political decisions to improve mitigation practices and environmental management. 

While the report is intended for policy makers, the role of the IPCC is to inform governments about scientific knowledge rather than prescribe policy.  The policy options presented in the report are meant to overcome the challenges of climate change but the report does not promote one set of policy options over another.