Q&A: IPCC Official Christopher Field Discusses Latest Climate Change Report

Metling Glacier Photo Credit Bernard Francou/San Andres University via Bloomberg

After five days of talks, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presented the Working Group II report March 31 in Yokohama, Japan. The new document, the second of three parts that will combine to become the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report, is the most comprehensive collection of data so far on the impacts and vulnerabilities the world faces from climate change.

After the report was released, Working Group II co-chair Christopher Field from the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology spoke with Bloomberg BNA by telephone from Yokohama.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

BBNA: Give us an overview of this latest report. What is unique in this report?

Field: There's no doubt that there's a lot of cause for concern in the report, about what we can expect in terms of impacts around the world. But there's also a lot in it about what we can do in terms of generating solutions. I think that's the big difference compared to past reports. In this one, we know a lot more about what you might call the “solution space” — about where adaptation works, where mitigation works and how they can work together. It tells us how we can think of acting on information in a way that's productive in terms of generating solutions that lead to more robust economies and more vibrant communities.

BBNA: You have said many times that the IPCC has no specific goals in mind, except to make the relevant information available. But how do you hope the information will be used?

Field: Well, being smart means taking a careful look at the IPCC reports and asking whether smart policy can build on them. But I think smart policy should always build on all the available information.

BBNA: The IPCC reports are generally well-received by the environmental advocates, but in the past, previous reports have often failed to resonate among policy makers as much as those advocates might like. Is there some reason to believe that this report, because of its breath and depth, will be different?

Field: I would like to see a sustained conversation, from individual households to international forums about what the information means. There are some aspects that will be helpful for a sustained conversation. Even though it has a lot about the risks and other scary stuff, it also spends a lot of time on what we know and what we don't know about adapting to the impacts of climate change and what can't be avoided.

BBNA: This “solution space” is interesting. Was this included this time around as a response to something parties thought was missing in the past? Or is it a case of the information finally allowing the IPCC to draw these kinds of conclusions when it wasn't possible previously?

Field: It's much more the later. It's about adaptation—when it works when it doesn't work. That requires a great deal of data, and what we have available now is much more comprehensive than what was available even a few years ago. This is one of the most rapidly growing areas of science.

BBNA: There are many aspects to this “solution space” but is there some tendency you see? Is there a common thread through many of these solutions?

Field: Yes, there is. One of the most interesting aspects of the solution space is that many of the steps that can make the most difference in providing protection against climate change impacts also have co-benefits. That means that while taking certain steps to confront climate change, you're also building improved economic activity, protection from current climate liability and a more interconnected world. There is a wide range of things that can come along from investment in these areas.

BBNA: Is it correct to look at the possible solutions as a kind of a window that will be open only for a fixed time? Is acting today better by degrees of magnitude than acting in a year or five years or 10?

Field: The climate is a pervasive problem and as a result, the longer you wait the more complex the problem becomes and the more limited the set of solutions is and the more likely it is that you'll end up with uncomfortable levels of impacts. But that doesn't mean we've passed some point of no return. Basically, the longer you wait, the harder it is to solve the problem. It's not clear that there's a clear threshold at some point. Basically, with inaction you're just moving forward into an environment of greater and greater risk.

BBNA: The IPCC has faced controversy in the past. Without going too far back, there's the recent case charging that the British government may have tried to assert “political influence.” Do you see this as a real problem?

Field: The IPCC is an amazing enterprise. The goal, as I said, is to provide a precise way to access and think about the information from 12,000 publications published by 300 individuals. It boils the stuff down, and provides a clear, understandable and as relevant as possible set of information. We worked closely with governments of all countries, and the consequence of that is that we end up with ways of phrasing things that are different in different drafts. It's exactly what you'd expect if you try very hard to make the information as clear and relevant as possible. So, yes, there were changes in the draft text we had last week, compared to the one from this week. But I don't believe there were any changes that were politically induced or that changed the content. The last round of changes are designed just to make the report clearer and more focused.


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