Why you should read the new IPCC report

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The long-awaited “Summary for Policymakers”, the second chapter of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007 report, is being released today, April 6th.

This section of the IPCC report summarizes the ecological and human impacts of climate change and the extent to which people and ecosystems can adapt to climate change (the first chapter, on the causes of climate change, was released in January).

Unlike public reports about climate change, the IPCC report is not a public relations effort. It is not the work of environmentalists, nor any former US vice presidents, or any industries with a vested interest. It is not part of a political campaign. The report will not win an Oscar, a Pulitzer, a Nobel Peace Prize, or even a Juno. This report is simply the expert account of what is and what is not happening to people and ecosystems across the planet due to climate change.

Let’s say you are worried about your health. Maybe you’ve noticed an elevated body temperature, and it is beginning to affect the way you function.

You go to the doctor. The doctor gives you a diagnosis, based on her or his expertise. To be safe, you might get a second opinion. Most of the time, that’s enough.

But this diagnosis is a frightening one. And you want to be thorough. So you make a call to the United Nations.

The UN assembles a team of thousands of top doctors from around the world, with a range of specialties. The team of doctors does a comprehensive review of all the scientific literature on your condition and charges medical centers around the world to run sophisticated computer models simulating your health. The information is assembled into a massive technical report. A draft report is then made available for any doctor in the world to review. Thousands of people review aspects of the report and provide criticism that is factored into the final draft. The team of doctors then meets with representatives from different countries around the world to produce a summary of the report in less technical language that reflects the most important and statistically significant findings. Five years later, you are given that summary.

That is how these IPCC “Summary for Policymakers” reports are produced.

They are the end-point of an exhaustive review of scientific literature by a group of top scientists and a long peer review process. They are not alarmist. The findings contained in the reports actually tend to be quite conservative, because they arise out of a wide body of research and adhere to strict statistical conventions. For example, the projections for sea level rise are lower than in many climate studies because of reported uncertainty in the understanding of ice sheet dynamics (for more see ice sheets).

Unfortunately, once this next report is released, it is bound to become politicized. It will be debated by pundits, twisted by bloggers, and abused by people on all parts of the political spectrum. What to do? Go the IPCC website, and read the "Summary for Policymakers" yourself. It is written in language that should be accessible to all. It should not take more than 30 minutes to an hour to read. (And tell your family, and tell your friends, to do the same).