Ross Clark Ross Clark

What’s the truth about the UN’s ‘code red’ climate warning?

Waves lap ashore near buildings in Sunny Isles, Florida (Getty images)

Predictably enough, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has been greeted with hyperbole about fire, flood and tempest. It is ‘code red for humanity,’ according to UN general-secretary Antonio Guterres. ‘This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels before they destroy our planet.’

As ever with IPCC reports, the content doesn’t live up to the hysterical reviews. If the vision presented in it were the basis of a disaster movie you would want your money back. 

No, it doesn’t say that the German floods were caused by man-made climate change – something implied by much of the press coverage, which used photos of the damage in Rhineland towns to illustrate the publication of the report. What it says – to quote from the ‘summary for policymakers’ – is that ‘Globally averaged precipitation over land has likely increased since 1950, with a faster rate of increase since the 1980s (medium confidence)’ – in other words we think, but we are not all that sure, that the world is experiencing higher rainfall. Somehow, that gets converted by some into an assertion that climate change has created an event such as the German floods out of nothing.

Over the past few years, it has become common practice to blame any storm on man-made climate change

But the summary for policymakers is itself a distilled version which omits many of the complex changes observed in the climate over the past century, the uncertainties and caveats surrounding these – and the efforts to compare these changes with what has happened in the past few thousand years so as to judge whether they might be accounted by natural variability. These are published in the body of the report. Perhaps the most interesting section relates to storms. Over the past few years, it has become common practice to blame any storm on man-made climate change.

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