I get a little bit angry every time I see the physical science basis for climate change being presented at high-level fora on climate change. My immediate reaction is that whilst it is of course important that we keep updating and refining our knowledge, we know enough now to know that human activity is causing climate change, and that we should be doing all we can to reduce emissions and prepare for the impacts we are already locked into. It’s absolutely right for scientists to continue their work, but there’s nothing to be gained from politicians, civil servants and diplomats debating whether humans are causing climate change. It should be all hands to the pump.
Three sessions I attended as an observer at COP26 over Tuesday evening and Wednesday therefore gave me food for thought. They were – with apologies for the COP jargon – the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice’s Focal Point Forum on the Nairobi Work Programme: Biodiversity and Climate Adaptation; IPCC Special Event on the Working Group 1 Contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report; and the Informal Consultation on Research and Systematic Observation. Essentially the first two events were more informational in nature, whereas the third was more of a negotiation of the content of the final conference text.
One of the key things I took from the sessions was that whilst the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the climate science community tend to shy away from making any kind of policy prescriptions, delegates of different countries are quick to pick up on – and try to shape – any nuance in the text. There were extensive questions in the IPCC Special Event about how likely the ‘worst case scenarios’ the IPCC had laid out were in reality, with some parties calling for more emphasis on these being ‘low-probability’ events. The Informal Session (which, despite its name, is one of the sessions in which the text feeding into the final conference agreement is negotiated) was eaten up almost entirely with debate over whether the text should ‘encourage’ countries to pay cognisance to the latest science in their climate responses or whether this should be left out, with significant differences between nations.
The evening Biodiversity and Climate Change Adaptation session had much dialogue on how to link the need to adapt to climate change with the imperative to protect biodiversity – two areas of action which national governments often consider separately. It was noted that less developed countries often – due to lack of access to locally-specific knowledge – do not have evidence into how climate change will affect their local ecosystems, or the social, cultural and economic benefits that may be realised by enhancing biodiversity. The IPCC Special Session also discussed in depth how requirements for evidence to be peer-reviewed often mean Global South countries – where impacts will be felt hardest – are under-represented in the IPCC’s evidence syntheses. It as also noted that the least developed countries don’t always have the resources to be able to crunch large volumes of data through climate models in time to meet the review and reporting deadlines.
Scientists might have good intentions of remaining apolitical, but the way science is interpreted by its audiences is always political.