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New UN Report

Climate Change Inaction Must End

More than 800 experts from 195 countries have collaborated on the UN's lengthy new report on climate change. Despite points of scientific contention, the study uncovers worrying developments. Instead of arguing over the details, it's time the international community finally takes action.

AP / The Star Press / Kurt Hostetler
A Commentary By
Friday, 9/27/2013   05:32 PM

With its 2,000 pages, the United Nations' fifth assessment report on global warming is a mammoth document -- and the result of unimaginable hard work. For the final draft alone, some 800 experts and 26 governments contributed exactly 31,422 comments. (The central findings can be found here.)

Into early Friday morning, members of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) continued to quibble over the findings in closed-door negotiations at a former brewery in Stockholm. The report will shape the debate that decision-makers will engage in over the coming months and years. And the wrangling continues: Two other research groups are to present their findings next spring in Japan and Germany. The reports constitute the latest chapter in our attempt to adapt to climate change and prevent further destruction of the planet.

Nevertheless, many questions persist, among them the circumstances surrounding extreme weather events and what's known as climate sensitivity. That pertains to the question of how much the earth's average temperature actually rises when the concentration of carbon emissions in the atmosphere doubles. The new report comes to the conclusion that global warming is not happening as quickly as previously thought -- something that's currently the subject of much discussion. Those who previously doubted the occurrence of climate change will use it as evidence of a tempting supposition: It's not so bad after all.

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And it's not just the skeptics who are now pointing, often justifiably, to the difficulties of using scientific models to explain current climate occurrences, let alone climate trends of the future. Criticism is being leveled, also justifiably, at the shameful secrecy of the IPCC in its preparation of the report. And the organization is now being maligned -- yet again justifiably -- as a politically motivated body in which politics is allowed to triumph over science.

No Problem of Recognition

But as important as these debates ultimately are, they may also blind us to the essential message: Despite all the remaining scientific uncertainties, there is no great problem of recognition. Climate change is clearly happening. The question is how we respond to it. Every year humanity emits more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And in spite of a temporary pause, these gases are warming our planet in the long term -- from the outer atmosphere to the depths of the oceans. They are melting the glaciers, raising the sea levels, acidifying the oceans.

At the same time, international efforts for a climate agreement are not making progress. One tedious and unsuccessful climate summit follows the last. The next act of the drama will take place in November in Warsaw's National Stadium. But the problem of climate change will not disappear just because one or the other thinks he has now heard or talked enough about it. Quite the contrary.

Real Consequences

The scientific findings must finally have real political consequences. No more stalling! Old antipathies no longer have a place here. Emission levels continue to rise in Germany, the self-styled model country of the comprehensive shift to renewables known as the Energiewende -- despite growing shares of renewable energy and exploding energy costs. At the same time, greenhouse gas emissions are decreasing in the United States, where President Barack Obama wants to take old power plants off the grid.

The international climate summit needs movement by the Americans, the Chinese and the Europeans. An important step in this direction could be a trading system for carbon emission pollution rights that would include China. And the IPCC urgently needs reform, which would reduce political influence and enable more open communication.

Perhaps future reports could even exist as a sort of online wiki. This would ensure that the newest studies would be reflected in the report. It would finally make the debate transparent -- and it would grant the public access to research as it happens, not just every six or seven years.

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