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A coal power plant in Grevenbroich, Germany.

Emissions pour out of coal-fired power plants in Germay. Could the United Nation's forthcoming report on climate change lead to stricter regulation of such carbon pollution?

Photograph from Mauritius Images/Alamy

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published August 20, 2013

A leaked early version of a major forthcoming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations-affiliated panel of scientists that is often cited as the world's top authority on global warming, is grabbing headlines this week.

The New York Times reported on what it called the report's "near certainty" that humans are responsible for the rising temperatures of recent decades and its warning that sea levels could rise by more than three feet by the end of the century.

The draft IPCC report also dismisses a recent slowdown in global warming, attributing it to short-term factors. (See "Rising Seas" in National Geographic magazine.)

The leaked document is only a draft, and still has to be approved by the several hundred scientist-members of the IPCC, who are scheduled to meet in Stockholm next month.

IPCC spokesperson Jonathan Lynn said in a statement Monday that it "is likely to change in response to comments from governments received in recent weeks and will also be considered by governments and scientists at a four-day approval session at the end of September. It is therefore premature and could be misleading to attempt to draw conclusions from it."

But experts say the contents of the draft report are unlikely to change substantially, based on the IPCC's past efforts. Whether it changes much or not, all this week's attention on the leaked version speaks to the huge role the once-every-five-years-or-so report has come to play among scientists, the public, and governments around the world.

What Is the IPCC, Anyway?

The IPCC has met to produce a sweeping report on the state of global warming science every five or six years since the group was founded in 1988.

This latest iteration will be called the Fifth Assessment Report, or AR5. The IPCC does not conduct any original research, but instead works to review, analyze, and summarize existing climate science research from around the world.

Jim Kossin, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is one of many scientists helping to write the IPCC report on a voluntary basis.

"Each [IPCC] report is important in that it is updating all the recent research since the last one," said Kossin.

Kossin added that other scientific groups release their own assessments on climate science, particularly at the national level, but that the IPCC reports tend to be the most important, globally speaking.

Many governments look to IPCC reports when charting policy relating to climate, from the local level all the way up to international bodies like the European Union. For example, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration has relied in part on IPCC reports in developing risk planning for the city and in promoting hybrid taxis, green roofs, and other sustainability measures.

The new report could impact laws and regulations on matters ranging from carbon taxes in Europe to funding for renewable energy in the United States to transportation planning in China.

A Nobel Prize

The IPCC came in for even more attention in 2007, when it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Al Gore. The Nobel Committee cited "their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change."

But the award was loudly criticized by global warming skeptics.

Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), a longtime global warming denier who has called man-made climate change "the greatest scientific scandal of our generation," criticized the award and asked the Justice Department to investigate prominent IPCC scientists for possible academic misconduct (they were never charged).

David Henderson, a former chief economist of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), criticized the IPCC in the Wall Street Journal in October 2007. Henderson argued scientists invited to the IPCC are a self-selected group that includes only those who already accept human-caused climate change.

"The process is flawed, and this puts in doubt the accepted basis of official climate policies," he wrote.

Skeptics Take Aim at IPCC

Criticism of the IPCC reached fever pitch after the group's 2007 report, when it was revealed that a prediction about the melting of glaciers in the Himalaya was not derived from peer-reviewed science. That information was later removed.

The IPCC was also embroiled in criticism by climate skeptics in late 2009 after emails from scientists at East Anglia University were leaked to the press, in a very public flap that came to be known as "Climategate." Bloggers thought they saw a "smoking gun" in an email referring to "hiding the decline"—which they speculated meant scientists had been covering up falling temperatures.

Actually, the scientist who sent the email explained that he had been referring to a specific problem with some recent tree-ring data. He said measured temperatures had continued to rise, showing 2009 to be one of the warmest years ever recorded.

Although some IPCC critics in the media had alleged that the leaked e-mails undermined mainstream climate science, the scientists successfully countered that their words had been read out of context, and that the conclusions of IPCC's reports were unaffected.

An open letter from around that time to U.S. federal agencies by more than 250 scientists confirmed the community's support for the IPCC's report.

"None of the handful of mis-statements (out of hundreds and hundreds of unchallenged statements) remotely undermines the conclusion that 'warming of the climate system is unequivocal,'" the letter read, "and that most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-twentieth century is very likely due to observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations."

Kossin said he and his fellow AR5 report authors are working very hard to be as thorough and objective as possible in their review of existing climate science, to reduce the possibility of mistakes and reduce chances for future criticisms.

Kossin voices a line similar to the one the scientists took in the open letter. "There's always going to be skeptics in the world," he said. "They tend to be a very small minority, but they are very vocal so they appear larger than they are."

He added, "The vast majority of people who know about atmospheric science know the scientific evidence suggests that skeptics are wrong."

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44 comments
Ernie Walker
Ernie Walker

I do not doubt man's influence on climate change, but would also like to understand the affect of a naturally warming planet and how much influence that is having relative to mankind's pollution.

Even if one were to argue that mankind is not influencing climate, there still needs to be an effort to reduce emissions and pollution to our Earth. It is the only home we have.

However, there one question I have with this whole issue - why are the scientists, religious leaders and politicians not addressing the issue of over-population. No matter what we do, if our population keeps expanding the way it has in the past 50 years, there will come a time when we will "max out" the earth's capacity to feed our population and absorb all of the waste that we create. I realize this creates all sorts of thorny issues but sooner or later, it will need to be addressed.

Linda Schuster
Linda Schuster

The photo of the plant in Germany, though dramatic, hardly represents pollution in this image. It is heat from the stacks creating steam, not necessarily pollution. It is a cloudy, humid day, and similar scenes can be viewed at coal fired plants in the United States that have very efficient emission controls on them, especially on cloudy days.

D Pfingsten
D Pfingsten

The real problem is pollution. Excess CO2 production can be fixed. Pollution ruins everything. Unfortunately, all the focus on CO2 emissions and global warming just shoves the pollution issue under the rug.

Gradivus Graham
Gradivus Graham

Use of the misnomer "global warming denier," a pejorative rhetorical device intended to associate critics of global warming alarmism with Holocaust denial, is an indication of biased reporting. And it's a misnomer because global warming alarmists and their media allies use it to refer to those who do not deny that global warming has occurred, but merely disagree that that there is sufficient evidence to blame it primarily on human activity.

Tony C.
Tony C.

Yet again so many word's and  no actions, surely it's time for "show me, Don't tell me"

Alec Sevins
Alec Sevins

Attn. authors of this and similar articles:

Please stop giving the so-called skeptics (aka deniers) equal time on this issue. They are armchair quarterbacks at best. They do no original research and gather no data. They merely cherry-pick the hard work of others to suit their narrow ideology. The only CO2 the GOP really understands is found in beer foam.

The public keeps getting the impression that there's a legitimate debate on this topic, thus the need for action keeps getting downplayed. You might as well bring Creationists into every discussion of new DNA techniques or fossil finds. When will this faux "two-sided" reporting cease?

Alec Sevins
Alec Sevins

I just discovered the real purpose of global warming deniers. They keep ignoring scientific evidence merely to raise the blood pressure of thinking people. This is done in collusion with doctors who get billed for prescribing blood pressure medication, thus creating convenient cash flow for the doctors. And Michael Crichton ("State of Fear") was once a doctor. It all makes sense now.

Seriously, that's about as valid as most of the deniers' conspiracy theories.

Alec Sevins
Alec Sevins

Forget the IPCC and their soshulist NWO conspiracies against blue collar Amurrica! Jimmy Inhofe and Яush Limbaugh are the true climut xpurts. Them elitists just want to raise our taxes. Al Gore flies on jets!

It's been cooling since 1998! El Nino had nuthin' to do with that spike!

They were predicting an ice age in 1974 so they can't be trusted! Those 70's TIME and Newsweek articles meant 100% consensus!

CO2 just makes plants grow better. It don't trap no heat or nuthin!

Our all-knowing Gawd wouldn't let little ol' Man mess things up. Business as usual must continue!

(I just saved some right-winger a bunch of typing.)

Daniel Thompson
Daniel Thompson

Pole to pole ice melt demonstrates  warming.  The question is whether human activity is a partner in crime.  If it is then our wireless communication which keeps the atmosphere in a constant state of activity, aka: warmth, is involved, especially in restricting night time cooling,  along with the gas comforter we create.  Any connection will be vigorously denied, of course, but nature doesn't care whether we deny it or not, it just does what it does.  If we do something nature reacts.  We could set off a number of nuclear bombs and create cooling as well.

Rugeirn Drienborough
Rugeirn Drienborough

Your sensationalist caption on your picture of "smoke" coming from the chimneys of a German power plant is either deliberate misrepresentation or blatant stupidity. Those white clouds are water vapor. Carbon dioxide, which is what you should be talking about, is colorless and therefore doesn't appear as clouds. Good old-fashioned carbon-carrying smoke is dark grey or black, not white. You might was well take pictures of some nice white puffy cumulus clouds and call them "pollution." Honestly, how young is your staff? Environmentalists learned not to make this dumb mistake back in the 1970's.

You don't help your cause by blowing smoke!

Mechthild S.
Mechthild S.

It saddens me that a crucial topic in a serious publication meets unproductive and commentary below that completely misses the large picture. Minor details in the report do not matter when the issue at stake is the survival of our civilization as we know it.

The phrasing is common in scientific circles and is very different from sensationalist and over-confident media.

Besides, we do not need 100% certainty for urgent action. If a patient is terminally ill (a state the Earth is approaching) 100% certainty means death. So our debate (+ action) should not be what % is human-induced  but how can we turn the CO2 level rise back or at least slow it down before the climate reaches an irreversible tipping point.

Box Ohohfour
Box Ohohfour

I am not a foe of global warming at its most basic... however, I do not, and cannot accept stories like this as being sound science as much as they are political.

Note: I not only had to surrender my facebook identity to say this here, but also had to enlist as a member of NG... in a day when web privacy is sacrificed to corporate and government. 

I wish the subject of climate change was in the domain of science alone. If that ever happens, maybe the planet will do more than treat it like a political issue.

Okay, I'm done.

Box Ohohfour
Box Ohohfour

I am not a foe of global warming at its most basic... however, I do not, and cannot accept stories like this as being sound science as much as they are political.

Note: I not only had to surrender my facebook identity to say this here, but also had to enlist as a member of NG... in a day when web privacy is sacrificed to corporate and government. 

I wish the subject of climate change was in the domain of science alone. If that ever happens, maybe the planet will do more than treat it like a political issue.

Okay, I'm done.

B Mott
B Mott

Smoke pours out of coal-fired power plants in Germay. is the caption under the photo

that's steam coming from cooling towers on a humid day

it looks dramatic but is harmless

you loose credibility on climate change when you mislead

Paul M.
Paul M.

Only Science Can End This Costly Debate To Save The Planet 

As soon as the climatologists all agree it WILL be a climate crisis not just might be a climate crisis, this costly debate to save the planet will end once and for all because this consensus of maybe feeds the deniers more than all of big oil itself. 

If science refuses to say their crisis is "inevitable" not just "possible" what then? 

What has to happen for science to say their own crisis is "eventual"?

D Pfingsten
D Pfingsten

@Alec Sevins This isn't a Democratic/Republican issue. It's a people vs. the corporations that run the US issue.

Jordie Lewis
Jordie Lewis

@Alec Sevins While I understand what you are saying and agree, please don't generalize to such a degree. What's wrong with having Creationists in discussions of DNA techiques or fossil finds? We are not all the same. Just like in everything else, there are those who are loud mouthed blowhards (the ones who people know more), and there are those who are reasonable and logical. 

Brian Howard
Brian Howard expert

@Alec Sevins Alec, I'm sympathetic to that argument, and tried to write the piece to accurately reflect the authority of the various positions on the subject. I didn't mean to imply that the deniers are on equal scientific footing, but rather tried to accurately portray the political landscape around the issue.

Alec Sevins
Alec Sevins

@Rugeirn Drienborough: So, since CO2 is colorless, it can't ever exist in conjunction with steam aka water vapor? OK, genius. Your logic is stellar.

Actually, this brings up a good concept. If CO2 was some radical color like purple, people would pay far more attention to it. Former Rep. Vern Ehlers (one of the few science-minded Republicans) used that color to describe why most people don't understand fossil fuel energy (they can't see how much waste it creates as heat). I think CO2 is misunderstood for the same general reason. People treat it like a ghost molecule. Out of sight, out of mind. It's the simpleton's mantra in America.

You don't see many right-wingers claiming that Man doesn't cause photochemical smog. They long ago acquiesced on that point. But it's just a small leap to see that Man can cause all sorts of emissions-related problems. Being a global warming denier isn't much brighter than being a smog denier.

Eric Paul
Eric Paul

@Rugeirn Drienborough "...blowing smoke!" - Hahahahahahahaha....hahahaha.....haha....ha.  So clever Rewgearinne...whatever!  Please cite what Power Plant emits only Water Vapor as a byproduct?  I'd really like to solve the world's energy problems with this mysterious, alien technology that only you seem to be aware of!

Brian Howard
Brian Howard expert

@Rugeirn Drienborough Hi. I just updated the caption to read "emissions" instead of smoke. I wasn't trying to be sensationalist, I was trying to use language that readers can relate to. While carbon emissions are an important part of power plant exhaust, and the most germane to the story here, it's also true that coal plants do not release 100% water and CO2 vapor. There are nitrous oxides, particulates, and other nasty things in there, which also comprise "smoke." I think smoke is a fairly subjective term when it comes to common language.

Andrew Turvey
Andrew Turvey

I suspect you have significantly underestimated the seriousness of a crisis that would be necessary to put "the survival of our civilisation at stake".

There are currently around 7,000,000,000 humans on the planet. Most of them live a significant distance away from the sea. Even the very worst case assessments of the impact of food shortages, resource conflicts, disaster casualties etc only get to the hundreds of millions of people.

How would that be the end of civilisation, let alone the extinction of humanity? Our species has suffered much more severe set backs before - such as the last Ice Age or the Justinian Plague, which cut the population in Europe by 85% and 50% respectively.

Andrew Turvey
Andrew Turvey

I suspect you have significantly underestimated the seriousness of a crisis that would be necessary to put "the survival of our civilisation at stake".

Smith Richton
Smith Richton

I wouldn't worry that much because regardless of our actiivties, if the human race goes extinct, the planet will be just fine and over time, life on this planet will be restored to its natural beauty and life will thrive once again. As for your immediate concerns, much of it is over hyped for political purposes to gain more control over society and is greatly benefiting all the investors associated with this push (ie. Al Gore). I do believe without a doubt that humans are disrupting the natural order and this is causing many species to suffer but C02 (assuming it's as disruptive as scientists claim) is just the tip of the iceberg. The pollution (toxins/chemicals) and radiation around the world are just as damaging if not significantly more so. 

Eric Paul
Eric Paul

@Box Ohohfour Really?  Really?  Do people still use typewriters, light fire with rubbing two sticks together, and claim Science is "political"????  We are in for a very long and treacherous journey (mankind that is) as long as people like BOX don't understand that the only reason this has been politicized, by politicians, is because doing the right thing will take a lot of money away from people with money (cough, cough...politicians are bought)!

Brian Howard
Brian Howard expert

@Box Ohohfour I understand your frustration, although I might suggest that can science, or anything else, really exist in a vacuum? Everything can and will be political, whether we like it or not.

A lot of scientists talk about the responsibility they have to engaging the public on the issues they study. Some don't like it, but some feel it is necessary.

Eric Paul
Eric Paul

@B Mott You "lose" credibility when you can't spell a common word!

Brian Howard
Brian Howard expert

@B Mott Hi. See my reply above, I edited the caption to be more precise. I'm not sure it's 100% steam coming out, but the carbon emissions are the most relevant aspect.

Paul M.
Paul M.

@B Mott Yes this climate blame Reefer Madness was a lazy copy and paste news editor's dream come true.

John C.
John C.

Don't you realize that being a catatrophist ranting loon detracts from your credibility. We'll all wait for what the grown ups have to say.

Alec Sevins
Alec Sevins

@Eric Paul @Alec Sevins: Just file my post under "Poe's Law," then.

"Poe's law, named after its author Nathan Poe, is an Internet adage reflecting the idea that without a clear indication of the author's intent, it is difficult or impossible to tell the difference between an expression of sincere extremism and a parody of extremism." (Wikipedia definition)


Alec Sevins
Alec Sevins

@Brian Howard @Rugeirn Drienborough: No need to coddle the demands of these mindless deniers. That's how they win in the court of gullible public opinion, you know. They should be handled like the bullies and punks that they really are.

They buzz around like flies looking to land on any article that mentions global warming, and dump their standard talking points on it. The content of the articles is trivial to them; they'd rather fixate on a photo, as was done here. They never read the articles in knowledge-gathering mode because knowledge scares them. Business-as-usual is all they can comprehend.

Eric Paul
Eric Paul

@Andrew Turvey You lost all credibility as soon as you said - "Most of them live a significant distance away from the sea".  I suggest you turn off your ipad and leave adult conversations to those that actually comprehend the subject matter.

Brian Howard
Brian Howard expert

@Smith Richton I hear the argument a lot that greens, Al Gore, and others are in it for the money, but that feels unlikely to me. Not only have I seen scant hard evidence of such motivation, but it just doesn't hold up to my understanding of economics. The greenspace is really not very profitable, most green businesses fail. There are many other vastly more profitable businesses, including working on "the other side," in traditional industry, so it seems hard for me to believe that any substantial number of greens would be "in it for the money." It seems that market forces would push them to more profitable things instead. (Al Gore could make a lot more hawking other things if he wanted, I'm sure.)

Eric Paul
Eric Paul

@John C. Being a "grown up" certainly doesn't mean you're intelligent and, more importantly, caring.  So what's your point John?  The light at the tunnel may be a way out...or it could be a train.  Your "sit and do nothing" approach isn't very productive no matter the reality/outcome!

Roiikka-Ta P Globetrotter
Roiikka-Ta P Globetrotter

@Alec Sevins @Brian Howard @Rugeirn Drienborough oh they deny, they sure do .. hence why people are starting to not care about them any more and they are becoming left behind.. its sad, they are just people, people trying to understand.. let them be. it is the best thing you can do right now. i know where you stand ..

Rose Marie Mcgrath
Rose Marie Mcgrath

@Brian Howard I can attest to that.  My daughter is a green with an environmental science degree.  She'd be making a heck of a lot more money if she worked for the oil industry.  As it is, she's just getting by.  She spends her days wading in muck, counting dead critters and helping to clean up the mess.

Smith Richton
Smith Richton

The planet is beyond F'ed so where exactly do you disagree? I want clean energy but understand that C02 is just one of many problems that this world has to deal with. Should we focus all our time on just C02? The paradigm must undoubtedly shift into a new era of mutual respect between individuals and the earth. And the solution I have determined is a mass-awakening through the use of DMT (you produce this compound in your sleep however there are various ways to produce it) - it promotes a regulating behavior of cosmic/harmonic balance with the universe. You think I'm sounding like a charlatan yet? Please look into this because we don't have time for petty games when this planet is in desperate need of good ideas.

Eric Paul
Eric Paul

@Brian Howard I praise you for even wasting your time trying to explain such an elementary concept/counterpoint to people like "Smith Richton"

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