Next month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—or IPCC for short—plans to release another report. And again, scientists, lawmakers and activists are bracing themselves for the news.
The report will come three months before world leaders gather in Glasgow, Scotland, to try and figure out a plan to avert the worst effects of climate change. And it’s all but certain the IPCC’s findings will inform that debate.
So, what is the IPCC and what does it do?
One thing it isn’t is a fly-by-night operation. The U.N. group has been around for more than three decades assessing the science behind climate change, projecting what’s to come and offering ways to respond. All with the eyes of the world upon it.
“No other science has been scrutinized as heavily as climate science has in the past 30 years, and that’s thanks to these intergovernmental reports,” said Corinne Le Quéré, research professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia.
One consistent message among them all: an ever-stronger statement about the human influence on global temperature rise as a consequence of growing greenhouse gases, said Emily Shuckburgh, director of the Cambridge Carbon Neutral Futures Initiative.
On Aug. 9, the IPCC will release the first of four reports under its latest assessment cycle. Here are five things to know about the IPCC, its upcoming report and the politics that surround the effort.
The IPCC consists of government representatives who commission regular environmental reports from academics from around the world. Those experts have produced their assessments on a seven-year cycle since 1988, with special reports in the interim years. The IPCC is currently in its sixth assessment cycle.
The assessments are divided between three working groups, each with a different focus and published on different intervals.
Working Group I is a synthesis of the existing physical science. It answers questions about how much global warming is occurring and where; how warming impacts oceans, sea-level rise and weather pattern changes; and it lays out projections of what we might see in the future. This is the report that will be published in August.
Working Group II, slated for February, focuses on how vulnerable humans and nature are to global warming, the costs of climate impacts or adaptation options. Working Group III, to come in March, will look at options for keeping to global temperature targets and scenarios on renewable energy or carbon capture and storage.
At the end of the cycle there is a final synthesis report. This cycle also will include a task force report on national greenhouse gas inventories.
On Aug. 9, the IPCC will release its summary for policymakers following a series of meetings where it will be discussed, revised and then signed off on.
There are more than 230 authors from 65 countries. Men have historically comprised the majority of these contributors, though that pattern has started to change. Women now make up about 30% of the group. A gender panel and task force is working to bring more women into the process.
The latest assessment will include new advances in science and a better understanding of the human impact on global warming. It will also have an interactive atlas—a novel addition—and five emissions scenarios that will explore the impact of rising emissions.
A certainty statement: Each assessment has included a level of confidence that human activities are responsible for projected warming. The last one in 2013 put that confidence at extremely likely.
Shifting baselines: This assessment will be fed by a new generation of computer models. A report last year, for example, suggested that historical temperature rise has been slightly bigger than previously thought, said Richard Black, a senior associate at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit. “What will that turn into about the carbon budget left?” he asked.
Other gases: Given advances in the science around the different greenhouse gases, Working Group I could separate the way they treat carbon dioxide and other long-lived greenhouse gases from methane and other short-lived ones.
Timing: What impact might the report have
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