Even if you have little knowledge of the environment, and more specifically of climate change, you must have heard of the IPCC at least once. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change received the Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with former Vice-President of the United States, Al Gore. At the time, the Nobel Prize Committee wished to reward “their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”
The mission of the IPCC is in fact to make the state of research on climate change better known to the general public. While it does not conduct any research, it “reviews and assesses the most recent scientific, technical and socio-economic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change,” thanks to the volunteer work of scientists all over the world. This information relates to three areas: human-induced climate change; its impacts; and the options for adaptation and mitigation.
The IPCC co-receiving the Nobel Peace Prize shows how important this intergovernmental body has become in the fight against climate change. Its creation was in fact a big step in the story of concern about the environment.
An intergovernmental body to fight climate change
In 1988, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), both United Nations organisations, set up the IPCC at the request of member governments. As Spencer Weart explained in a 2011 article entitled “International Cooperation: Democracy and Policy Advice (1980s)”, several countries were then looking to “form a new, fully independent group under the direct control of representatives appointed by each government – that is, an international body.” There were two reasons for this:
firstly, concern about climate change was rising, and it was becoming more and more obvious how vital it was to tackle the subject.
Secondly, as concerned as they were, several policy-makers (and especially the United States government) wanted to “supersede the Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gas [composed of independent scientists] with a new kind of institution,” with one that would be less likely to stimulate “strong environmentalist pronouncements.” This desire led to the creation of the IPCC, and later to its endorsement by the United Nations General Assembly. It was given the task of publishing reports on topics relevant to the implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, an international treaty whose implementation led to the definition of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The fact that the IPCC is so closely interlinked with all these international bodies, treaties and decisions shows how it was meant to be a tool for the global fight against climate change.
Damning findings and mitigation options
In September 2013, the IPCC published the first part of its Fifth Assessment Report (three other parts will be published during 2014). This first Working Group focused on the “comprehensive assessment of the physical science basis of climate change,” and its conclusions were alarming. “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. […] The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years.” And so on.
As damning as these findings are regarding mankind’s effects on its own planet,
we must not forget that the IPCC’s « raison d’être » is also to highlight options for the mitigation of climate change.
In April 2014, the third Working Group will publish its recommendations on this question. And then the time for the member governments to go ahead and implement them will come.
Photo: © Zurijeta