Climate science: what everyone should know

Originally posted in The Financial Express on 19 April 2022

C.P Snow, the renowned British writer and physicist, lamented in his bestselling book ‘The Two Cultures,'(1956) about the communication gap between the scientific community and those educated in liberal arts and felt that the gap between the two should be bridged for their mutual benefits. Were he living today he would have regretted even more the lack of adequate knowledge of policy makers, corporate sector and educated persons about the scientific discourse on climate change that tells that their life and livelihood and the planet’s ecology are in clear and present danger.

Climate science, like any other branch of scientific knowledge, is arcane but its findings and conclusions have been separately presented by scientists in sufficiently simple language to be comprehensible even to those who are school graduates. Nor are these findings sequestered in the cloistered confines of academia or the exclusive preserve of scientific community. Since early Nineties, these are being presented in forums attended by government officials and in conferences of heads of states, beside being available in the public domain, including internet search portals. Arguments about difficulties of access to and comprehensibility of the findings of climate scientists’ findings on climate change do not stand in the face of existing reality. Indifference to what is perceived as Cassandra-like warnings of climate scientists or scepticism about the authenticity of their findings explain why climate science has been treated so lightly or alternately considered esoteric until now. But even after awareness about the impending catastrophe of human-induced climate change has sunk in, governments of some powerful countries are trying to water down the scientific findings, lest they have to take steps that will curtail the lifestyle of their citizens and limit the ways of using resources that sustain it. Simultaneously, many governments and corporate bodies are still harping on the unreliability of scientific findings and especially, the uncertainty of the dire predictions being made about the future. At this critical juncture, when the future of planet Earth and all the species living in its various ecologies are under existential threat, according to the scenarios drawn by the climate scientists, it is important to understand what climate science is all about and how it has become the most public of all sciences, after health and agriculture. In fact, climate science, embodying all other life sciences, is the most important ‘public science’ at present. Educated individuals, irrespective of their nationality and governments of any stripe anywhere in the world, can remain ignorant of climate science and what it has been saying for the past several decades, only at their peril. In the programme for widespread dissemination of the climate science made easy, everyone, from ordinary individuals to industrialists and politicians, are stakeholders, as all of them have sowed the wind contributing to human- induced climate change and are now reaping the whirlwind and therefore have roles to play in the mitigation of the looming crisis. First, they should know how climate change has become a problem from being a subject of routine study and documentation.

Secondly, they should know the process through which climate science has become a ‘public science’. Thirdly, the causes that have brought about this change should be known, perusing the reports on climate change prepared by scientists for lay persons. Finally, as stakeholders, all the actors in this grim situation should be aware of their responsibilities to take remedial actions to prevent the the catastrophe, that has already begun, from further worsening and to roll it back.

Climate has changed several times since planet Earth evolved after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago. This natural process took place both abruptly and incrementally. Incremental change in climate does not adversely affect land, ocean and atmosphere, threatening the species living on earth and the various ecologies in it. But change in the orbit of Earth around the Sun that caused several ice ages marked abrupt change in climate. Since the last ice age 12000 ( twelve) years ago, climate has changed incrementally, allowing species and plants to continue their existence uninterruptedly in the planet. After the Industrial Age, this began to change as mankind began using coal and subsequently, oil and gas for energy to run industries, transport and for domestic purposes of heating, lighting and other activities. The use of fossil fuel, particularly by the industrially developed countries, added to warming of the atmosphere, pumping ever increasing volume of what came to be known as greenhouse gases (GHG), of which carbon dioxide (CO2) was prominent. As long as heating of atmosphere, land and ocean through emissions of GHG was kept at the same level or slightly above that of the pre-industrial era, global warming was not a cause for concern.

The meteorological agencies and individual scientists kept tract of global warming as routine subjects in their documentation and research. Meteorologists and scientists watching global warming on a regular basis became concerned at the increasing pace of rise in the level of global warming. In 1988 the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) jointly decided to set up a panel of scientists comprising scientists from member countries of the UN who agreed to work voluntarily to study the causes of climate change, giving the forum the name, inter- governmental panel on climate change (IPCC).The same year the UN General Assembly approved this as an UN body for preparation of report on climate change. Later, it was decided that the assessment report of IPCC would be placed for consideration at the Conference of Parties (COP), the apex decision-making body of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).The UNFCCC was established in 1994 following a conference in Rio in 1992 where an environment treaty was agreed to address dangerous human interference to the climate system, mainly through emissions of GHG. The IPCC thus began its work even before UNFCCC and COP were signed into existence by member countries (197) of the UN.

The IPCC meets in a Joint Working Group (JWG) with the subsidiary body of UNFCCC where its inputs is provided for use by the Convention when its decision-making forum, the COP meets. The COP meetings have been held annually, attended by heads of 197 signatory countries, the last one having been in December, 2021 in Glasgow, UK. The most important COP meeting was in 2015 in Paris where an accord was reached to cut down on carbon emissions by half in 2030 to prevent global warming beyond 1.5 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial level.

The IPCC does not undertake research on climate change and uses peer- reviewed articles published in journals of scientists of different countries for writing assessment reports. It also produces shorter Special and Technical Reports on specific issues. The scientists who prepare the Assessment Report (AR) and other reports work on voluntary basis and part-time, and are drawn from different countries. The AR, the most important input provided to COP through the UNFCCC, is written in three groups. Group l deals with the state of global warming and factors contributing to it. Group ll lays down the strategy for adaptation to climate change and Group lll is concerned with identifying the pathways to mitigation i.e., ways and means of reducing the impact of and capping the limit of global warming. It also produces a Technical Report on the assessment and a summary for heads of governments incorporating the gist of information contained in the reports of the three groups which form the basis for discussion and decision making in conference of parties(COP). The AR, particularly its summary report, goes through a lengthy, and often tortuous process of negotiations in internal meetings and meetings with government officials before being released. In the course of these negotiations views of scientists considered as ‘uncomfortable’ to a country, particularly one identified as a major contributor to CO2 emission and thus required to take immediate drastic action, are made to be watered down before consensus is reached. The summary is always provided to governments on the basis of compromises made to reach consensus which indicates the unwillingness of some countries to accept scientific facts as established through observations and research by scientists.

Under Annexure l of the UNFCCC, 12 industrially developed countries were expected to reduce carbon emissions by 2000 to the 1960 levels, implying they were major contributors to green house gas concentration in the atmosphere. This was not relished by countries like America where the fossil fuel lobby is politically very strong. While pretending to go along with the work of the UN bodies (UNFCCC, IPCC, COP), America instituted its own and separate investigation into the causes of climate change. In response to the proposal from the House of Congress, the National Research Council of Sciences, along with Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, began a multi-level study on issues related to climate change. The report on their studies was released in 2010 and was called Advancing the Science of Climate Change and was part of a suite of studies named America’s Climate Choices. The National Research Council, like the UN’s IPCC, did not institute their own research but relied on peer-reviewed research articles of those who by then had come to be known as climate scientists. The panel of scientists appointed by the National Research Council was tasked to provide a concise overview of past, present and future climate changes, their causes and impacts and to recommend steps to advance current understanding, including new observations, research programmes, next-generation models and the physical and human resources needed for these and other activities. It is interesting that these terms of references do not include anything about what needs to be done to redress climate change. The scientists, who prepared the report, examined previous and ongoing research on the subject, including National Research Council’ s reports, assessments of other governments and inter-governmental organisations’ initiatives on the subject, the current scientific literature, climate action plans by various bodies and other sources. The findings and recommendations of the American scientists had eerie resemblance, at least in respect of the core conclusion, with those of IPCC. The IPCC in its assessment reports (AR) up to the Fifth had pointed out a ‘likely relationship’ between human activities and climate change, asserting in the latest and Sixth AR released on March 31, 2022, that there was ‘unequivocal evidence about human-induced causes’ like burning fossil fuels that caused concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, increasing global warming. The National Research Council’s commissioned report after saying that there were compelling evidences that climate was changing, threatening environment and human wellbeing stopped short of mentioning who or what caused this change. In the summary of the report it is mentioned in a tongue-in-cheek language: ‘There is still some uncertainties and there will always be in understanding a complex system like Earth’s climate. Nevertheless, there is a strong and credible body of evidence, based on multiple lines of research and documenting that climate is changing and that these changes are in large part caused by human activities.’ The only difference between the IPCC findings and conclusions and those of the National Council’s report is that whereas the former categorically mentions use of fossil fuels under ‘human activities’, the latter remains short of elaborating them. This compromise made by the American scientists, obviously to satisfy the powerful fossil-fuel lobby, is unfortunate and not expected from professionals.

To have a clear and concise understanding of climate change, its causes and responses necessary for mitigation and adaptations, there is now a vast body of scientific literature, developed over the decades. For those with no scientific background, the six assessment reports (AR) and their summaries prepared by the IPCC scientists are sufficient to apprise them about the what the climate science has to say regarding causes of climate change and update their knowledge of the same. The climate science, made easy by scientists and now available in public domain calls for reading by everyone who is literate and cares for human wellbeing and a stable planet hosting species and eco systems.