IPCC 2007 : an insider’s look
If you want the real climate news, go get it yourself
Thursday, January 25, 2007
On every news outlet of my home country, it has become impossible to ignore the hype building up about the upcoming release of the celebrated “Summary for Policy Makers” (SPM, for the acronym-hungry) of the first working group of the IPCC, which deals with the Physical Science basis of the climate challenge. Not to downplay the importance of the other 2 working groups, but without this root, any discussion on climate change policy would be absolutely futile – hence the flurry of anticipation surrounding its release. The last report dates back to 2001, and already made quite clear that there was a “discernible human influence on climate”. (IPCC Third AssessmentReport, 2001). Few people doubt that this new report will all but strengthen the message – the question is : on which aspects and in which words ? The much-awaited 21 pages are the quintessential nectar of a painstaking process of hair-splitting negotiations amongst the 130 countries involved on how to best distill the results of the chapter (which will ooze through here, over the coming year). The actual scientific document is being summarized for policy makers from all participating countries, all of which sent delegates who, but for all their divergences of opinion in global affairs, seem to share an uncanny taste for the exquisite subtleties of diplomatic wordcrafting. Much like the exact phrasing of a UN security resolution, a comma here or a semicolon there can make a world of difference. The international spotlight cast on the document testifies of its global significance : since every word of it may be quoted in years or decades to come as a basis for action (or inaction…), it matters rather what is said in detail, and how.
Every mailing list of climate researchers now buzzes about the SPM, most of us having received “leaks” of a sneak preview of the latest chapter : today even I, modest post-doctoral researcher unknown to the vast world, receive an announcement : it shall be released next friday at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Though my presence in France that long after Christmas is only the consequence of some strange twist of fate (possibly aided by some cryptic rules of the US embassy’s), I measure the historical nature of the occasion, and form the resolve to be there – by all means necessary.
Monday, February 29th, 2007
It might not be so hard. I had long wanted to start blogging about climate, and this might just be the perfect occasion. For the sake of it, let’s try to get a press accreditation as an “independent blogger”.
Bang ! I log on blogger.com. Boom, I set a few parameters, and within a handful of minutes – Shpongle ! – I am ready to publish. But under what title ? I pause for a moment to find a name. I look at the window and suddenly notice that it is a gorgeous day out, and that I am very lucky to be babysitting my little sister near La Rochelle, an absolutely magnificent old town on the Atlantic coast of France. There is no doubt in my mind : after a walk on the seashore, a title will have materialized.
There I go. My sister is at school , so I lock the cat in and I jump out the door to go have a little chat with Poseidon. It turns out the latter is sleeping, still. The sea is unusually calm and beautifully green, the skies are clear and clement, the sun bright and searing on my winter coat ; the wind just strong enough to bring a smell of iodide from the open water. I walk leisurely until the end of that small world : the end of a jetty, on which I stay peering into the blue n’green immensity for some unknown lapse of time. I parse mediocre names and uninspired titles. Then I remember this song by Tom Waits, called “Strange Weather” , a long time favorite of mine.
Meteorological references abound in Wait’s work (see also the exquisitely quirky “Emotional Weather Report”), but this one illustrates particularly well how we are all affected by weather, to the point that it is the only subject of conversation which one is sure to find topical all over the world. As the great man says : “All over the world, strangers talk all about the weather”. And these days, strangers talk about that strange weather we’ve been having here or there ; on top of it all, strangers who somehow catch wind of my academic activities even come to me and ask “what on Earth is happening to the weather ?”. It makes perfect sense : the blog will be named after Tom Wait’s song.
(I would hereby like to inform Tom Wait’s lawyer that before (s)he files a lawsuit , I have some prime scotch whisky at home and dear growly Tom is welcome for a chat any old time).
I rush home, log onto blogger, only to discover that “Strange Weather” is already taken. Damn ! Well, “That strange weather” isn’t. I’m not in a picky mood today – a blog is born.
Tuesday, January 30th, 2007
Meanwhile, as I was wasting time seeking a sleek title, the buzzing bees of broadcasting agencies were busy bragging about the IPCC – without much substance of course, but with a rare talent for speculation. Le Monde makes a total ass of itself misquoting facts and scientists (I wish I could link to that gem : hey took it down from their website, unfortunately). No one learned much on climate that day, but the media pressure, at least, worked wonders on me : that morning i register on the IPCC form sent by their (very urbane) press correspondent. In the field “Newspaper / network” , I modestly type “ That strange Weather – independent blog”. Alea jacta est.
Thursday, February 1st, 2007
Much to my surprise, I learn today that I have been “accredited” and that I can show up as early as 7 am the next day in order to set up the TV broadcast system for my network. Yeah right : 7 am – as though I would do it even with a gun on my temple. I briefly consider buying a tape-recorder for the occasion… Nah : let’s do it low-tech : paper&pen. Such is the irony of being a climate reporter surfing on the Web 2.0 technological revolution : a renewed appreciation for classical reporting methods.
Friday, February 2nd, 2007
I get out of the subway under gray skies that mirror the gloom of the XVth arrrondissement of Paris. Hurrying into the UNESCO headquarters, i pass by a half dozen vans bearing the logos of famed TV networks. The sharks are circling. I zoom to the registration desk, vaguely anxious that things can’t possibly go as simply as they have been so far. Within 3 minutes I have a press badge, a wink and a smile from a press assistant. All right !
“Am I late for the press conference ?” , i ask candidly. “No you’re just on time, the conference started at 9:30”, she replies with another smile. Indeed, it’s a mere 9:32 am and IPCC chair R.K. Pachauri is still making introductory remarks when I enter the main room. It’s not too hellish trying to find a seat, but the crowd is definitely unruly : constantly getting up or down, mumbling into cell phones and microphones, anxiously eyeing each other’s badges and recording devices of video and audio-vibratory kind being pointed everywhere, so as not to miss a snippet of anything.
Pachauri speaks of the clam and deep voice that suits his patriarchal beard so well. He stresses the collaborative nature of the IPCC’s work : about 450 authors from 130 countries have contributed, from such a diverse cross section of interests that it ensured science was the heart of the matter. The summary was elaborated during the 4 preceding days, with input from more than 600 reviewers. It can therefore be said to reflect the consensus of the world’s climate science community – the cornerstone of its legitimacy.
Without further ado he introduces co-Chair Susan Solomon, described as a “staid and conservative scientist” (IHT, Feb 3rd), which entirely fulfills expectations. During the next 15 minutes she proceeds to gently rock the room to the brink of lethargy, thanks to a monotonic voice and outstandingly poor computer graphics, which do quick work of putting the “classroom” to sleep. (i later learnt unofficially from a sarcastic official that this may be the very reason – besides an indisputable competence on the matter – why she holds that role. Honestly, in a world ruled by stereotypes, who would take a jovial scientist seriously ?).
As soon as she launches her Powerpoint presentation, there is great edginess and fidgeting around the room. Journalists motion for their camera operators to catch every word she will say, while the Men in Headphones avidly monitor their recorders to catch every syllable. Cutting to the chase, Solomon breaks the punchline : “Global warming is now unequivocal, *unequivocal*”, she repeats. This is enough to send everyone into a frenzy of typing or phoning. I would love to know how many times that word got used on that particular day. Unequivocal. We ain’t messing around anymore.
She then proceeds to summarize some key findings :
the net climate forcing due to human activities is 1.6 W.m-2 (0.6 to 2.4).
the attribution of a “discernible anthropogenic influence on climate” over 6 continents is now, well, unequivocal.
about 0.1 degree per decade is still to come as “unrealized warming” even in the absence of further greenhouse gas emissions.
the last interglacial period (125,000 years ago) is the best analog for things to come in a “business-as-usual” scenario, with a possible rise of sea-level by 7 m if greenland melts (which she acknowledges as a major source of uncertainty).
the projections are a “best estimate” born out of probabilistic forecast (read : not just one realization of the future course of climate, but from many different simulations), and with a considerably better agreement between models since the last report, especially on regional changes (those of interest to nations, and therefore to policy makers).
In all this, she remains very rigorous about quoting error bars and uncertainties, in a very cautious manner . The non-scientific crowd tries intently to listen to everything, but the weight of pages of stern tables is intolerable for some. Having not honed a resistance to sleep during boring scientific talks for the past 8 years – unlike yours truly , and lord knows I still have trouble – the attention quickly falters in the most attentive ranks, to be replaced by the sneers and winks of media folks who seem suddenly to remember some never-ending hours spent in unwanted high school chemistry classes. Exchanging smiles and rolling eyes, they seem to mutter to each other “Somebody give these scientists a PR training, pleeeeeeaaase !”.
Speech now belongs to Michel Jarraud, head of the World Meteorological Organization, who stresses the importance of maintaining observational programs to keep improving the accuracy of measurements – which have been key to reducing uncertainties in estimating “global warming”. Actually, this is a good point which deserves to be expanded, because climate data have long suffered from the inconstancy of funding, leading to some gaps or inconsistencies in the data, which have taken long to correct, when they can be. He then feels obliged to repeat some of the above in French , just to be sure the French press hasn’t gotten it all wrong. I hide my flag in my pocket and look at my shoes in dismay. All other nationalities seem to understand English.
Word is then passed onto Achim Steiner, head of UNEP, who is by far the most eloquent and engaging of speakers. The best proof is that if you’ve read any other article on this, is it very likely you read this : “Feb. 2, 2007, will perhaps be remembered as the day” when global thinking about climate change moved from debate to action, he said. “The focus will shift from whether climate change is due to human activity, to what on earth are we going to do about it.”
as here, here and even here (albeit in various states of distortion). He noted that over the one hour press conference, about 9000 children will have been born around the world, who will all have to cope with a changing climate during their lifetime. A simple mind then asked “So what should we do ?”, forgetting that he should save that question for the Working Group 3, whose job it is to make such recommendations.
A Q&A session then begins, where nothing outrageously surprising is said, though it is somewhat disturbed by electro-acoustic interferences , just to remind everyone that no matter high-tech their TV equipment, some dudes still haven’t gotten the point that it’s a bad idea to stick a public microphone next to their headphones. It’s been a good half century since the Larsen effect was discovered, and some still lag in comprehension… That alone is sobering about how long it will take to explain the more complex “greenhouse effect”, but we’re trying hard.
Finally, Pachauri concludes the session, before handing the contributors to the zillion questions of all the media teams. He dwells again on the findings, their likelihood, and reminds everyone that “Although some areas are still uncertain, uncertainty is no reason for inaction. Indeed, financial markets spend their time making decisions on the basis of incomplete data”.
No, we don’t know everything to the tenth decimal point, but we know enough to say that we’ll be in serious trouble if we no action is taken. It’s a topic dear to my heart since I’ve been saying this for years (though in fairness, few people beside my roommate have heard it), and I only hope this time the point will get across to a wider audience.
Coffee Break starts. All journalists seem to simultaneously contact their headquarters. Cell phones are ringing, keystrokes resounding. The room empties at great speed as TV Broadcast teams go harass each of the lead authors one by one. I will wait for my turn and glean my information from the ones I am lucky enough to bump into.
But that will be a story for another day…. I promise I will not wait 10 weeks before it’s up.