Not Good Enough

One of the baffling things about the IPCC Working Group II document released on Friday is how much it ignores mankind’s ability to progress. Time after time it fails to take into account any increase in adaptive capacity as the world gets richer. Essentially, it assumes we spend all our money on iPods while our feet get wet. But it’s even worse than that. Indur Goklany sums it up:

In the few cases where they consider that existing technologies will be adopted more widely because of increasing wealth, these studies don’t generally allow for new technologies. This is the case for some of the studies of agricultural production and hunger, for example. These studies estimate impacts for 2085 using technologies from the 1990s or earlier. This is like estimating today’s food production and levels of hunger using technologies from the 1910s! You are bound to underestimate food production and overestimate hunger. In developing countries prevalence of chronic hunger declined from 37% to 17% between 1970 and 2001, despite an 83% increase in population, in substantial part because of new technologies. These improvements would not be captured using the above methodologies had they been applied in, say, the 1960s to estimate hunger in the 2000s. [This view — that adaptive capacities and technologies are static — was exactly why Paul Ehrlich’s predictions in the Population Bomb, for example, bombed in reality.] Not allowing for secular technological change or for technologies developed specifically to alleviate any impacts of climatic changes does not reflect “business-as usual” as the IPCC scenarios claim to do. One should expect the greater the potential food shortfall, the greater the adaptive response. It means that net negative impacts for the future are overstated.

Indeed, even where it’s quite obvious that existing technology will help, the IPCC doesn’t go far enough to pointing this out. While The New York Times suggests in its web-only sidebar on the release (which very creditably shows how the report was made more alarmist in some ways) that this statement is watered down,

Many millions more people are projected to be flooded every year due to sea-level rise by the 2080s. Those densely populated and low-lying areas where adaptive capacity is relatively low, and which already face other challenges such as tropical storms or local coastal subsidence, are especially at risk

…there’s actually a very good scientific basis for that. The underlying documentation makes it clear that the number of displaced people drops by 90 percent if the world keeps investing in sea defenses at the same rate as it is today.

As Goks concludes in his as yet unpublished analysis, the report:

· Overstates negative impacts and understates positive impacts

· Overstates the level of confidence that should be attached to the impacts on both human systems as well as “natural” systems (because the latter are also affected by human actions)

· Fails to examine the impacts of climate change in the wider context of other stresses affecting humanity and the rest of nature

· Fails to examine the relationship between climate change and sustainable economic development more fully, which could mislead policymakers into opting for policies that would divert resources from dealing with today’s urgent problems in favor of policies to pursue longer term, and more uncertain, problems.

That’s no basis for a report to policymakers. Governments should refer this back to the IPCC with a request: Please Try Harder.