Zurich-based scientist Sonia Seneviratne, an expert on extreme weather, spent hundreds of hours volunteering her time as a lead author for a chapter in the UN climate panel’s latest assessment of global warming. 

Seneviratne has contributed to three of the six assessment reports that have been published since 1990 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These documents offer a detailed look at how climate change is altering the world. The most recent report, for example, drew on more than 14,000 scientific studies and was published this week. 

But it could be her last time contributing to these reports. She questions their usefulness and has become frustrated that policymakers continue to fail to act on the scientific research.

“You can ask: Is it a meaningful use of scientists’ time if nothing is being done,” she told Reuters, the day the report was released.

In a follow up interview with CBC News, Seneviratne clarified that she was happy to have contributed to the international report and that it does provide a robust assessment of the current state of climate change.

‘No point for us to just observe’

“I think what I wanted to communicate is, yes, there is some level of frustration,” she told CBC News. “There is no point for us to just observe what a disaster is unfolding if nobody is doing anything about it.”

Among the warnings, the report predicted the world will cross the 1.5 C warming mark in the 2030s, earlier than some past predictions.

It also found that weather extremes once considered rare or unprecedented are becoming more common  — a trend that will continue even if the world limits global warming to 1.5 C, as the Paris climate deal aims to do.

Zurich-based climate scientist Sonia Seneviratne says she may no longer contribute to UN climate panel assessment reports; she’s frustrated policy makers continue to fail to act on the research. (Courtesy of ETH Zurich)

Even if emissions are slashed in the next decade, average global temperatures could rise by 1.5 C by 2040 and possibly 1.6 C by 2060 before stabilising, the report found.

Seneviratne along with Xuebin Zhang, a senior research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, were the coordinating lead authors of the report’s chapter on extreme weather. 

She said she is not excluding the idea of contributing to some smaller, more targeted IPCC reports. But she said, “if there is no real action action happening as a follow up to [the sixth assessment] report, you can question whether this is effective.”

“There is a need for monitoring and looking at what is happening. It’s actually the policymakers that are asking scientists to make those reports; I would say the scientists have done their job and now policymakers have to do their own job.”

IPCC report co-author Baylor Fox-Kemper, professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Brown University in Rhode Island, echoed Seneviratne’s remarks. One of the reasons scientists prepare the report is to provide decision makers with information that may stimulate mitigation efforts, he said.

‘Less than I hoped’

“And in that respect I’m with Dr. Seneviratne that the response to our reports has been less than I hoped,” Fox-Kemper said in an email to CBC News.

However, he said, without the most up-to-date information and projections on the changes to come, it is difficult to create an effective adaptation strategy or infrastructure.

“For that reason, our work is valuable,” he said. “While we may be underwhelmed by the response, if we stop it is surely likely to diminish action.”

WATCH | Some climate change impacts ‘irreversible’ now, latest IPCC report says:

Some climate change impacts ‘irreversible’ now, says UN climate panelThe world must act to stop climate extremes from getting worse, says a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC) 1:16

Robert Kopp, director of the Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Rutgers University, who also co-authored the report, agreed that IPCC assessment reports are a major volunteer effort.

“It’s not surprising to me that Sonia — or, frankly, any of the other folks who contributed to the most time-intensive roles, that of coordinating lead author — chose not to do it again,” he said. 

Need for more detailed information

Still, there’s a need for detailed information about how to mitigate, as well as how to adapt, to the climate risks that we’ve created, Kopp said.

“So I don’t think the IPCC assessment reports are becoming futile, but I do think it’s very reasonable to ask whether the current structure of the IPCC assessment report — divided up into separate reports on physical science, impacts/adaptation, and mitigation — is the most effective one.”

Darrell Kauffman, professor at Northern Arizona University’s School of Earth & Sustainability, said he agreed that policymakers have more than enough information on which to act;  but he still sees “tremendous value” in generating future reports. 

“The science behind climate change is growing rapidly and decisions should be based on the most current and well-understood science,” he said in an email to CBC News.

WATCH | World reacts to dire forecast from UN climate panel:

Climate change affecting every region on Earth, UN report saysThe UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns in a report that climate disruptions are guaranteed for decades, if not centuries, due to greenhouse gas levels. People of all ages across the world expressed concern for what that means for the future. 1:20

IPCC reports also create healthy feedback for the scientific community to take stock of progress. They also provide some measure of standardization for scientific approaches and terminology, he said.

As well, they bring together expertise from across the climate science community “to generate synergistic outcomes that are rare in academia and governmental science.”

“Needless to say,” he said, “I’m a big fan.”

Source From CBC News

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