WASHINGTON -– The next report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international group of scientists and government policymakers, will focus on managing the risks of a warming planet, according to the report's co-chair.
"The impacts of climate change that have already occurred are very evident, they're widespread, they have consequences," Chris Field, a professor in the Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University and the co-chair of the IPCC working group drafting the report, said in a meeting with reporters Monday.
The fifth assessment report from the IPCC's Working Group II focuses on climate impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability. The final version of the report is due to be released on March 31, though reporters have already published a leaked early draft. The draft states that, within this century, effects of climate change "will slow down economic growth and poverty reduction, further erode food security and trigger new poverty traps."
Field said the report will emphasize the need to minimize and manage the consequences. "The essence of dealing with climate change is really not so much about identifying specific impacts that will occur at specific times in the future, but about managing risks," he said.
"I think if you look around the world at the damages that have been sustained in a wide range of climate related events, it's very clear we're not prepared for the kinds of event we're already seeing," said Field, referring to recent floods, droughts and other extreme weather. "That's not to say those are caused by climate change, but we're not prepared for the extremes we already encounter."
Those changes pose a threat to ecosystems, human systems, infrastructure, the financial system, and security, Field said. But "in every case we could make smart decisions that put us in position to more successfully cope with risks that are present now, and put us in a better position to deal with them in the future," he said.
The report also will contrast risks in a future world in which high emissions continue, and a one where polluters substantially lower emissions. "There's really a big, big difference between what those worlds look like," said Field.
Given current emissions, the planet is committed to warming in the future, according to the assessment of climate science that the IPCC's Working Group I released in September. Making the changes necessary to stave off major impacts will take a long time, Field said, and "the risks go up the longer you wait."
The latest report will, for the first time, look at the potential for climate variability to drive human conflict. The potential for domestic and international conflict related to issues like food security, water access, poverty and migration has been raised in the past, but have not made it into previous IPCC reports. Field stressed that climate change's impact on human systems is difficult to determine, but the report will "deal seriously with the literature that is out there."
The IPCC's Working Group II writing team consists of about 80 scientists, drawing from the work of hundreds of scientists around the world. The writers have received 2,000 comments on just the summary for policymakers, Field said. The IPCC review process also involves input from representatives from 194 member countries, who weigh in on the final text. The scientists and members will meet in Yokohama, Japan, from March 25 to March 29 to complete the report.
Field said the document is still in development. An earlier draft of this report made it into the press only after it was posted on a climate denier website under the subheadline, "The latest document the IPCC doesn’t want you to see."
"IPCC puts a lot of emphasis on a process that builds on expert and government review comments," said Field. "The reason they've discouraged coverage of early drafts is that they really do change a lot."