What is the IPCC Report and How Screwed Are We?

On March 31st the IPCC will release its latest climate change report, but how bad is the news and what does it mean for Australia?

Talking about climate change can be pretty depressing. The reality of more extreme weather, rising sea levels, food insecurity and millions homeless can conjure images of the apocalyptic. It also doesn’t help that, as Giddens suggests, ‘no matter how much we are told about the threats, it is hard to face up to them, because they feel somehow unreal—and in the meantime, there is life to be lived’.

When problems are huge and overwhelming it’s easier to do nothing and assure yourself that other (more qualified) people are dealing with it anyway—plus Al Gore made that movie, so maybe he’s fixed things? In addition to being a bleak topic of conversation, climate change is a political lightning rod. Knight asserts that in the last five years, climate change has wrought more damage to the Australian political landscape than any other issue. And just to muddy the waters further, it’s also the target of a well-funded and organised campaign of climate denial.

It’s not an easy challenge to face, but on March 31st we’re going to hear more about climate change, including specifics about the future for Australia, and this time around we can’t afford to tune out. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the leading international body for the assessment of climate change with thousands of scientists contributing to landmark reports that cover the full scientific, technical and socio-economic spectrum when it comes to mapping the impacts of our changing climate. They are a big deal. The upcoming report is part two of the Fifth Assessment Report, building on the physical science contained in part one to consider impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.

Part of the report has already been leaked to a variety of media outlets, including the ABC, Sydney Morning Herald and The Guardian, and their coverage of the Australasia chapter provides us with a snapshot of just how screwed we are. It’s not all doom and gloom. Whilst some changes are irreversible, building a clearer understanding of the enormity of the challenge we face leaves us better positioned for last minute mitigation and smart adaptation.

Australia’s mining, agricultural and tourism industries are set to be hard hit by an increase in extreme heatwaves, fires and floods exacerbated by climate change. In 2011 The Australian reported that flooding would cost the agricultural sector ‘$500-600 million, while coal exports will take a $2-2.5 billion hit’, it turned out to be closer to $7 billion and the IPCC report draws on this as a sign of things to come if the industry doesn’t adapt, fast. Our billion-dollar tourism industry is also set to take a blow with the Great Barrier and Ningaloo Reefs crippled in all possible climate scenarios, with increasing water temperatures and ocean acidification wreaking havoc on entire marine ecosystems. The ski season isn’t set to fare well either. Agriculture will also find itself in the climate crosshairs with The Age’s Tom Arup citing the leaked draft as stating that ‘a 4 per cent reduction in the gross value of beef, sheep and wool is expected with 3 degrees of warming above a 1980-99 baseline’ and the ABC’s Jake Sturmer outlining an expected ‘40 per cent drop in agricultural production’ if worst case scenarios are realised.

On an international scale the upcoming report is expected to include a focus on climate security, which will involve mass human displacement potentially causing as many as 150 million – 250 million Environmentally Displaced Persons, subjecting hundreds of millions more people to the crisis of hunger, the spread of infectious diseases and intensifying conflicts within and between nations as the struggle for resources becomes what the UN terms ‘a major driver of war and conflict’.

The full report will be released on March 31st and this quick snapshot will soon become a much bigger picture. The Sydney Environment Institute (SEI) in collaboration with the Australian Centre for Climate and Environmental Law (ACCEL) are holding a landmark Sydney Ideas event that brings together the nation’s leading experts to discuss the implications of this publication. Our panel consists of four speakers, including Professor Lesley Hughes of Australia’s newly formed Climate Council who was a lead author for the IPCC Fourth and Fifth Assessment Reports.  Having the opportunity to trade the sometimes dense and chart laden IPCC report for a panel of qualified people breaking down the contents into laymen’s terms is a valuable thing.

So, how screwed are we? Well, a NASA-funded study thinks we could be hurtling towards an irreversible collapse, but it’s not all over yet. Knowledge is power, and it’s time to engage with the tough issues. The more we begin to understand how climate change impacts our planet and what we can do about it, the better.

For more information on our event and panelists click here

Alix Pearce recently graduated from the University of Sydney with first class honours in government and international relations. Her thesis focused upon the implications of climate security for the Australian Defence Force. She currently works for SEI.