US wants dilutions, alterations and deletions in UN climate change report

United Nations. Photo: Reuters
The United States has asked for more than a hundred dilutions, alterations and deletions in a report of the United Nation’s Inter-governmental panel of scientists on climate change (IPCC). The report, to be released on October 7, explains what it would take the global community to keep the rise in global average temperatures below 1.5 degree Celsius and the consequences of not doing so for the planet. 

Business Standard reviewed the set of comments sent by the United States government to UN IPCC for changes in the draft before it is finalised for public release. 

In a large number of its comments, the United States has asked for more sharply and rigorously highlighting the ‘uncertainty’ involved in projecting an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, the consequent global warming and the subsequent impacts on environment and ecology. Where that is not done or possible it has asked for the removal of the scientists’ conclusions. In some of its comments it has challenged whether climate change has so far led to any adverse impacts for people and the planet and asked that this ‘fact’ be addressed in the climate change report

While making these critical demands in its submissions to the UN, the United States has reiterated that it “intends to withdraw from the Paris Agreement at the earliest opportunity absent the identification of terms that are more favourable to the American people. The comments provided on this report are expert comments on scientific and technical issues. They do not reflect any statement on or change in the US position with respect to the Paris Agreement or climate change policy or represent any implied commitment.”

It has also distanced itself from the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), saying, “At this time, the US Government cannot express support for specific goals or targets of the SDGs.”

The UN report

The scientists on the IPCC prepare such reports. The report is prepared in two parts, a summary for policymakers and the larger tome of new scientific evidence that is marshalled to write the summary. The Summary for Policymakers or SPM as it is often called becomes the core scientific basis for countries to further the UN climate change negotiations, including those under the Paris Agreement. This particular report is likely to be the basis for countries to negotiate in December 2018 how, when and under what circumstances to ramp up their existing commitments and targets under the Paris Agreement, which is to be implemented starting 2020. 

The draft prepared by the authors is sent for one round of scientific reviews to experts around the world and then the second draft is shared with all governments for their review. Government representatives are set to meet starting October 1 to finalise the summary based on the comments they have sent in advance to the UN ahead of this three-day meeting. Business Standard reviewed these comments of the United States.

Highlight uncertainty

One of the “key issues” the United States has said is “Given all the uncertainty factors (climate sensitivity, role of non-CO2 forcers, overshoot/no overshoot, permafrost feedbacks, and uncertainties about warming estimated to date), the Summary for PolicyMakers text should be revised to clearly communicate the total ranges of the remaining carbon budget estimates.”

One comment from the US says, “Considering that we are currently 1± 0.2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial, means that we are two-thirds of the way to a 1.5 degree Celsius world, and halfway to a 2 degree Celsius world. Yet humanity has never been more prosperous, less poverty-stricken, less hungry, longer-lived and healthier than today; death and disease rates from extreme events and climate-sensitive diseases have never been lower (Goklany 2009, 2012, 2017); crop yields have never been higher and hunger rates never lower; nor has the biosphere been greener and more productive. These empirically observed phenomena are inconsistent with the basic premise behind this report, namely, humanity and the biosphere would be worse off as the world warms, or that a 1.5 degree Celsius and 2 degree Celsius worlds would necessarily be better for humanity or natural systems than, say, a 2.5 degree Celsius warmer world. The SPM should reconcile the lack of empirical evidence that increased warming to date has so far been detrimental to human and environmental well-being against the basic (implied) premise that warming equates to overall lower human and environmental well-being.” 

As another key issue, it adds, “There are significant uncertainties in the report’s projections regarding subjects such as biome loss, species loss, projected global mean surface temperature averages, and remaining carbon budgets, which are not appropriately reflected within the SPM...If such quantitative analysis is not present in the underlying report, the topic may not warrant inclusion in the SPM.”

The US has also said that the SPM should not use the word ‘substantial’ when referring to how the impacts of holding the temperature rise below 1.5 degree Celsius could be lower than trying to hold it at 2 degree Celsius. It has said, “Substantially" is a subjective, meaningless term in the SPM and should be removed. It's a major problem to use the term when discussing the difference in impacts at 1.5 versus 2.0 degree Celsius of warming. What is the difference in species losses at 1.5 versus 2.0 degree Celsius? Saying losses are "substantial" could be interpreted as a 10 per cent loss in the minds of some readers and 75 per cent in others.”

Dozens of other comments from the US government demand such changes to specific findings of the scientists. In several cases, it has asked for either greater certainty to make a statement, which scientific projections after cannot provide. In absence of this certainty, the US has said the specific statements should be dropped in entirety. 

One of the scientists on the UN panel who reviewed comments by the US government said, “All governments try to nudge the SPM of such reports to conclude more sharply on areas that aids their position in the climate change negotiations. That is par for course. But, this time the US has been rather emphatic about its agenda. It wants to accentuate and highlight the uncertainty involved in assessing the impacts of global warming. One can see at times it is setting up an argument to force deletion of specific statements that it finds disagreeable.”

The responsibility

The US has also asked for deletion of specific statements in the SPM which acknowledged that global temperature rise can be kept in check through rich countries taking on the responsibility for their historical emissions and helping the poor ones avoid emissions in future.

It has recommended deletion of this statement from the draft SPM: "Emerging literature on justice-centred pathways to 1.5 degree Celsius points toward ambitious emission reductions domestically and committed cooperation internationally whereby wealthier countries support poorer ones, technologically, financially, and otherwise to enhance capacities." 

It has also asked for this specific statement to be deleted, calling it prescriptive, “Recent work demonstrates the contributions of 90 industrial carbon producers to global temperature and sea level rise, and their responsibilities to contribute to investments in and support for mitigation and adaptation.”

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