STOCKHOLM (AP) - Scientists now believe it’s “extremely likely” that human
activity is the dominant cause of global warming, a long-term trend that is
clear despite a recent plateau in the temperatures, an international climate
panel said Friday.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change used its strongest language
yet in a report on the causes of climate change, prompting calls for global
action to control emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.
“If this isn’t an alarm bell, then I don’t know what one is. If ever there
were an issue that demanded greater cooperation, partnership, and committed
diplomacy, this is it,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
The IPCC, which has 195 member countries, adopted the report Friday after
all-night talks at a meeting in Stockholm.
In its previous assessment, in 2007, the U.N.-sponsored panel said it was
“very likely” that global warming was due to human activity, particularly
the CO2 emissions resulting from the burning of coal, oil and gas.
The change means that scientists have moved from being 90 percent sure to 95
percent - about the same degree of certainty they have that smoking kills.
“At 90 percent it means there is a 10 percent probability that it’s not
entirely correct,” said Chris Field, Carnegie Institution scientist who is a
leader in the IPCC but wasn’t involved in the report released Friday. “And
now that’s 5 percent. So it’s a doubling of our confidence. That’s actually
a consequential change in our level of understanding.”
One of the most controversial subjects in the report was how to deal with
what appears to be a slowdown in warming if you look at temperature data for
the past 15 years. Climate skeptics say this “hiatus” casts doubt on the
scientific consensus on climate change, even though the past decade was the
warmest on record.
Many governments had objections over how the issue was treated in earlier
drafts and some had called for it to be deleted altogether.
In the end, the IPCC made only a brief mention of the issue in the summary
for policymakers, stressing that short-term records are sensitive to natural
variability and don’t in general reflect long-term trends.
“An old rule says that climate-relevant trends should not be calculated for
periods less than around 30 years,” said Thomas Stocker, co-chair of the
group that wrote the report.
Many scientists say the temperature data reflect random climate fluctuations
and an unusually hot year, 1998, picked as a starting point for charting
temperatures. Another leading hypothesis is that heat is settling
temporarily in the oceans, but that wasn’t included in the summary.
Stocker said there wasn’t enough literature on “this emerging question.”
The IPCC said the evidence of climate change has grown thanks to more and
better observations, a clearer understanding of the climate system and
improved models to analyze the impact of rising temperatures.
“Our assessment of the science finds that the atmosphere and ocean have
warmed, the amount of snow and ice has diminished, the global mean sea level
has risen and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased,” said
Qin Dahe, the other co-chair of the working group.
The full 2,000-page report isn’t going to be released until Monday, but the
summary for policymakers with the key findings was published Friday. It
contained few surprises as many of the findings had been leaked in advance.
As expected, the IPCC raised its projections of the rise in sea levels to
10-32 inches (26-82 centimeters) by the end of the century. The previous
report predicted a rise of 7-23 inches (18-59 centimeters).
But it did acknowledge that the climate may be less sensitive to CO2
emissions than was stated in 2007. Back then, the IPCC said that a doubling
of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere would likely result in 2-4.5 C
(3.6-8.1 F) degrees of warming. This time it restored the lower end of that
range to what it was in previous reports, 1.5 C (2.7 F).
The IPCC assessments are important because they form the scientific basis of
U.N. negotiations on a new climate deal. Governments are supposed to finish
that agreement in 2015, but it’s unclear whether they will commit to the
emissions cuts that scientists say will be necessary to keep the temperature
below a limit at which the worst effects of climate change can be avoided.
Using four scenarios with different emissions controls, the report projected
that global average temperatures would rise by 0.3 to 4.8 degrees C this
century. That’s 0.5-8.6 F.
Only the lowest scenario, which was based on major cuts in CO2 emissions and
is considered unlikely, came in below limit that countries have set as their
target in the climate talks to avoid the worst impacts of warming. That
limit is a warming of 2 degrees C (3.6 F) compared with before the
industrial revolution in the 18th century.
At this point, emissions keep rising mainly due to rapid growth in China and
other emerging economies. But those nations say rich countries should take
the lead on emissions cuts because they’ve pumped carbon into the atmosphere
Climate activists said the report should spur governments to action.
“There are few surprises in this report but the increase in the confidence
around many observations just validates what we are seeing happening around
us,” said Samantha Smith, of the World Wildlife Fund.
The report adopted Friday deals with the physical science of climate change.
Next year, the IPCC will adopt reports on the impacts of global warming,
strategies to fight it and a synthesis of all three reports.