by Joel Battle (he/him)
This post considers the impact of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 6th assessment report on climate change policy. It argues that predictions detailed in the report, while updated to reflect new available data, do not fundamentally change our understanding of climate change. Therefore, this piece considers how the IPCC has contributed toward climate policy in the past to analyse how it may contribute to the future considering its new prognosis. It concludes that the IPCC has survived controversies and lack of support from past American administrations, but its impact is uncertain until the results of the upcoming COP26 conference emerge.
On August 7th, 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its 6th assessment report (AR6). The report details the current state of climate change, projections of future climate alterations, and what these projections mean for humanity. While the IPPC scientists who authored the report, the United Nations (UN), and many in the media appear to speak in unified terms regarding the threats presented in this report and the need for action, the international community’s voice for action is less discernible. As a student of international relations, this “international voice” and potential policy discussions resulting from this report, is what interests me. From this academic background, and as an American citizen, I ask, what does AR6 mean for international climate policy?
What does the IPCC’s report say
Fundamentally, AR6 updates the IPCC’s previous two reports: AR5 released in 2014, and “Global Warming of 1.5 C” from 2018. Briefly, AR6 details the warming patterns of the planet and the “tipping points” from climate alteration. For example, the continued collapse of arctic ice environments from increased global temperatures. According to the IPCC, “it is virtually certain that hot extremes (including heatwaves) have become more frequent and more intense across most land regions since the 1950s.” More significantly, “many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets, and global sea level.”[i] The IPCC provides a clear warning: climate change is here, its effects are apparent, and it is here to stay.
This latest report is a sobering reminder of the consequences of human-induced climate change. However, while the details of the report provide updated projections for exactly how the climate may change, the underlying message is not new; the IPCC and similar organizations have released climate reports for several decades with similar bleak speculative outlooks. This begs the question of how AR6’s updated predictions transform previous preconceptions and reports on climate change.
How does AR6 compare to previous reports?
Climate change compounds a myriad of interconnected global environmental problems. Thus, AR6’s findings have important implications for previous reports regarding the state of the climate, ecological health, and humans’ relationship to the environment
In 2019 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released its 6th “Global Environment Outlook” report. The UNEP provides a more holistic approach than the IPCC, focusing on environmental risk, impacts, and status rather than a specific concentration on climate change. However, climate change plays a substantial part in many of the document’s chapters. UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, states in its foreword: “the theme, ‘Healthy Planet, Healthy People,’ highlights the inextricable link between the environment and our survival and progress.”[i] As global environments and ecosystems are connected, so too are the impacts of climate change upon them.
For instance, climate change adds pressure to already endangered parts of the environment. GEO6’s Chapter 6 executive summary states biodiversity is under threat from changes in land-use, exploitation, climate change, pollution, and invasive species. Moreover, “while habitat loss and transformation is likely the most significant present pressure, climate change may be the most significant future pressure.”[ii] Biodiversity is but one example of how AR6’s prediction that climate change impacts will persist into the future makes expected dangers more consequential. Such danger is already observable; Chapter 7 of GEO6 says ocean ecosystems like coral reefs, “have passed a tipping point whereby chronic bleaching has killed many reefs that are unlikely to recover even over century-long timescales.”[iii] Following AR6’s updated data, dangers to environmental and human systems such as those presented by the UNEP are more pressing than previously predicted. But if the consequences of climate change are already occurring, why have the IPCC’s warnings not been acted on? How influential is the IPCC in spurring climate policy?
What is the role of the IPCC in climate policy
Historically, IPCC reports have generated controversy which in turn has prevented action. The 4th assessment report received negative media coverage in anticipation of the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference. [i] Doubts regarding the IPCC’s status as the authoritative voice on climate change were only bolstered by scandals like “Climate Gate,” where leaked emails supposedly revealed the IPCC had manipulated data in their climate models.[ii] Scandals like “Climate Gate” helped derail the Copenhagen Conference and in turn slowed policy discussions.
Despite its controversy, the IPCC has contributed much toward climate agreements, although its exact status in the international community is uncertain. The 2015 Paris Agreement called upon the IPCC to provide a report on the impacts of further temperature increases – which it did in 2018. The Paris Agreement also encouraged nations to use IPCC data to guide nationally determined contributions for emissions reductions.[iii] While during the Trump Administration, the US did not contribute funds to the IPCC or the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, those funds were already small – 2 million USD. Even with low financial contributions and general support from the United States under Trump, the IPCC maintained its influence in informing climate policy. Moreover, after Trump rescinded US support for the Paris Agreement, mayors, governors, and many US businesses formed their own coalitions to support the agreement. [iv] The IPCC has survived scepticism and scandal to contribute to international climate policy and guide world leaders. However, the long-term success of Paris and future agreements following this most recent report is the more pressing question.
Looking to the future
While the US is an influential player in climate agreements, even without their support under Trump, new climate agreements should have arisen in some form. However, since 2015, very little collective international action has occurred. Why has so little been done regarding climate change in international policy? More crucially, is AR6 the deciding factor to motivate new climate agreements?
At its core, climate agreements are collective action problems: how do you encourage multiple self-interested parties to work cooperatively? Influential authors like Elinor Ostrom describe the environment as a “common-pool resource”, and as such subject to problems of action and dilemmas of cooperation, like the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma.[i] From this theoretical tradition, I argue there are two significant barriers to climate change collective action. First, agreements like Paris are voluntary. Many countries are unwilling to voluntarily surrender control over their GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, as this restricts economic growth. For example, industrializing nations like China which have not yet hit their peak emissions would be unwilling to limit their economic growth for others sake. Other underdeveloped nations like Liberia, Bangladesh, face a more complicated bind – they are and will be particularly vulnerable to climate change, but reducing emissions is challenging. These nations must balance budgeting for infrastructure, development, and climate change mitigation which requires international support. Secondly, from a more theoretical perspective, agreements amongst multiple actors usually encounter free-riding issues – where one or a minority of all present parties are forced to pay more for the cost of a collective good because other members are not contributing toward the costs.[ii] In response, Nordhaus suggests the formation of “climate clubs” – an agreement between nations for “harmonized emissions reductions” where nations are punished if they break the rules of the club.[iii] Do IPCC findings through agreements like Paris create an international landscape which mirrors this idea? The problem with the formation of such “clubs” is illustrated by the UN itself: climate change is a global issue. A “club” of a few participants in insufficient to combat climate change.
This latest IPCC report may encourage nations to pledge more individual contributions or form a “club”, undeniably a positive outcome, but one which fails to meet the need for global cooperation. An optimistic outcome from AR6 would be the formation of a more stringent agreement: sharper reductions in global emissions, and both incentives for cooperative parties and punishment for those who cheat. How likely is such an agreement?
The IPCC is expected to release two further reports in 2022 on the impact of climate change on human society and prevention measures against global warming. On November 1st of this year, COP26 will begin in the UK. Following the release of new data and a fresh round of discussions, the international playing field will materialize more clearly. Optimistically, AR6 will motivate the conference’s participants to form an agreement, as the official publication for COP26 stated the IPCC report had not yet been released. More guardedly, AR6 does not present anything completely out of the imagination for policymakers, and it may not significantly contribute toward policy. Therefore, any agreement or lack thereof from COP26 will indicate how seriously governments consider the IPCC’s findings. The future of the climate is up to us, but time is running out to play our hand; one hopes the delegates traveling to COP26 this November will remember the IPCC’s warnings when they discuss the future of climate change policy.
[i] IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S. L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M. I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T. K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu and B. Zhou (eds.)]. (Cambridge University Press. In Press), 10, 28.
[ii] United Nations Environment Programme, “Global Environment Outlook GEO-6: Healthy Planet, Healthy People”, ed. By Paul Ekins, Joyeeta Gupta, and Pierre Boileau (Cambridge University Press, 2019), xxvii.
[iii] United Nations Environment Programme, “Global Environment Outlook GEO-6”, 142.
[v] N. H. Ravindranath, “IPCC: Accomplishments, Controversies and Challenges”, Current Science 99, no. 1 (July 2010): 26-35 (30, 26).
[vi] Ravindranath, “IPCC”, 32.
[vii] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, “Adoption of the Paris Agreement”, 12 December 2015, 4-5.
[viii] Joshua Busby and Nigel Purvis, “US Climate Policy Under President Trump”, Climate Leadership in Uncertain Times, Atlantic Council (2018), 5-6.
[ix]C. Dustin Becker and Elinor Ostrom, “Human Ecology and Resource Sustainability: The Importance of Institutional Diversity”, Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 26 (1995): 113-133 (115).
[x] William Nordhaus, “Climate Clubs: Overcoming Free-riding in International Climate Policy”, The American Economic Review 105, no. 4 (April 2015): 1339-1370 (1339).
[xi] Nordhaus, “Climate Clubs”, 1341.