Where economic, social, and environmental development meet

Dr Hoesung Lee, current chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was the invited speaker for the 2018 MacCormick European Lecture at the Royal Society of Edinburgh held on Monday 15 October. Titled ‘Addressing Climate Change and Pursuing Economic Development: Reflections from the IPCC’, the talk focused on the role of the IPCC and the recent Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5oC published one week before.

Dr Lee began his talk by quoting economist Adam Smith: “science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.” Lee suggested this sums up the mandate of the IPCC, an organisation which aims to provide accurate and objective scientific information on climate change to counteract lobbying and unscientific preconceptions.

Now in its 30th year, the IPCC is a ‘boundary organisation’ bringing together scientists and non-scientists. It doesn’t carry out research, instead of collating information from studies, assessing them for reliability, and making projections based on the data. The information is then used by governments as a basis for policy formation.

The release of the IPCC Special Report hit headlines using the tagline “ACT NOW, IDIOTS,” Kaisa Kosonen of Greenpeace’s summary of the negotiations.

In a more subtle way, Lee emphasised urgency is key. The Report suggests we have less than 12 years to act. Lee did not shy away from emphasising the seriousness of the situation but overall seemed optimistic that there was still time for people to do something positive. He stressed that the human system was key to combating climate change, stating “every bit of warming matters; and every bit of human action matters more.”

Signatories of the Paris Agreement of 2015 agreed to take action to limit warming to 2oC, and further aim to limit warming to 1.5oC. The IPCC was asked to produce the Special Report to look at the differences in impact between 1.5oC warming compared to 2oC warming. The report is a massive undertaking, involving many editors and contributors. It was produced under three working groups looking at the available scientific evidence, adaptation and mitigation possibilities. The Report is clear that a temperature rise of 1.5oC would have severe impacts. However, a rise of 2oC would be much, much worse. Dr Lee drew attention to some of the content of the report. With a warming of 1.5oC, as opposed to 2oC, 420 million fewer people would be exposed to severe heatwaves. Some coral reefs would survive.

Dr Lee also discussed impacts we are already seeing. Warming is not, and will not be, evenly distributed. Some regions are and will be considerably worse off than others. As Lee stated, “impacts are disproportionate on the poor and vulnerable who are least to blame.” The report connects limiting warming with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): “the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.”

Tackling climate change is often seen as the opposition to development, in particular, economic development. Lee was keen to stress this does not need to be the case. He argued limiting warming can be done while achieving the SDGs. Tackling climate change does not need to prevent economic growth or lead to compromises in health.

A recurring theme was the growing involvement of the social sciences in the IPCC. In a time when action is increasingly urgent, Lee emphasised that the IPCC is becoming focused on solutions. As Lee stated, reacting to risk is different from calculating risk. He acknowledged the need for social sciences and natural sciences to work together. Scientific reports can tell us that there is a need for action; social sciences can help us understand behavioural, social and cultural barriers to achieving this action.

Image Credit: Gellinger via Pixabay

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