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How Conservatives Should Approach the New IPCC Report

As conservatives that care about climate change, we often find ourselves in an interesting ideological sandwich. On the one hand, we have to debunk the vestigial spasms of climate denialism in the conservative movement, from groups such as the Heartland Institute and CFACT, while on the other we have to push back against the climate alarmism of many on the left. The reality is that yes, the climate is changing due to human activity, and this has serious impacts on the world, but no, the future isn’t apocalyptic and billions of people won’t die. Threading that needle can be challenging in a world unimpressed by nuance.

As such, you might be surprised to learn that the recent report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the United Nations’ scientific body for climate research, actually cements the ideological position of climate-conscious conservatives. Indeed, while many have reported that there is not “much new” in the recent IPCC report, apart from the usual doom and gloom, there are 2 crucial takeaways. 

First, the science is more certain and emphatic than ever about the fact that anthropogenic climate change is real, it’s happening now, and we need to do something about it. The summary on the official IPCC website states: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land,” and follows that up by saying: “Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe.” Indeed, this Sixth Assessment Report uses more confident language than any of the previous reports published by the committee. In particular, the terms “high confidence” and “medium confidence” have increased nearly tenfold in frequency since 2001. This is primarily due to the fact that scientists have been able to collate a lot more data and research in the two decades since, allowing them to make more confident assertions. 

This is good, not only because it gives even more scientific certainty to the need for climate action, but also because it gives conservatives more ground to stand on when rebutting climate deniers among our ranks. Conservatives that have stuck their heads out on this issue, from politicians such as Bob Inglis, Carlos Curbelo, and John Curtis, to organizations such as the American Conservation Coalition, ClearPath, and the very publishers of this article, have stronger scientific backing than ever before. As the deniers progressively sink further into political oblivion, embracing the need to do something about climate change is becoming increasingly mainstream among most conservatives.

The second major takeaway is even better news. As Reason Magazine science writer Ron Bailey wrote recently, “the scariest predictions in the new U.N. climate report are also the most unlikely,” as scientists conclude that climate change is a huge challenge, but neither apocalyptic nor unovercomable. 

Every report, the IPCC publishes a variety of future emissions scenarios, based on current data and long-term projections. Interestingly, as researchers Roger Pielke Jr. from the University of Colorado and Justin Ritchie from the University of British Columbia point out, the most extreme climate scenario that has historically been published by the IPCC, known as RCP8.5, was actually chosen more to establish continuity with past reports (which had incomplete data) and to facilitate technical analysis of extreme human impact vs natural variability, than for its scientific plausibility. For example, it relies on the assumption that coal-power usage will increase sixfold by 2100, whereas the International Energy Agency has stated that it has already peaked or is about to. 

The problem is that IPCC reports and scenarios not only provide a very useful scientific exercise, but they are also used by activists, the media, and policymakers as the basis for climate advocacy. Up until now, RCP8.5 was always the most commonly cited scenario and a projection of the world if no climate policies were enacted; in other words, business-as-usual. This has been used and abused by climate activists, the mainstream media, and politicians to paint a misleadingly bleak picture of our planet’s future. 

Thankfully, however, the IPCC report published last week now acknowledges the high unlikelihood of this scenario, and for the first time reduces the top end of the so-called climate sensitivity equilibrium, which is the degree to which the climate is directly impacted by additional greenhouse gas emissions. Pielke Jr. and Ritchie, joined by Matthew Burgess also from the University of Colorado, analyzed emissions scenarios from the IPCC report, and found that 71% of the most plausible emissions scenarios “project between 2°C and 3°C of warming by 2100, with a median of 2.2°C.” This is a far cry from the 4.9°C by 2100 predicted under RCP8.5, which is only good news for the planet.

Ultimately, it goes without saying that the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report still paints a picture of urgency, seriousness, and grave consequences if we do nothing. It warns that our window of opportunity to limit global warming to even 2°C above pre-industrial levels is rapidly closing. But there are also important positives to take away for conservatives that genuinely care about climate change. The science more robustly than ever backs us up when we tell skeptics that the issue is real and needs to be addressed, while it also allows us to rebut alarmists who over-emphasize the most extreme projections. This is crucial as we pave the way for a more serious, solutions-driven, optimistic climate movement. 

Christopher Barnard is the national policy director at the American Conservation Coalition (ACC). Follow him on Twitter @ChrisBarnardDL.   

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of C3.

Copyright © 2020 Conservative Coalition for Climate Solutions

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