IPCC Report AR6 – some afterthoughts

Apr 18, 2023

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Photo by John Blower flickr.com/photos/10332960@N03/

When we at GJA decided to produce our recent three-part summary of the latest IPCC report, the purpose was to break down an extremely lengthy and often impenetrable text into points that could be used for making arguments.  As the world’s biggest assessment of its kind, broader in scope and coverage than any other, and especially given its oft-quoted nature, getting at what it actually says seemed fundamental to the continuing debate.

But during the writing it became apparent that just saying what the report says, albeit in simplified language, can come across as whole-hearted endorsement of the report.  And that’s not what we had in mind.  Our summaries were intended as a tool, not advertising.  In truth, opinion in GJA about the report is as diverse as anywhere else, and the following is the author’s opinion, not a collective one held by GJA.

Some critique was touched on in our summaries, but it’s worth dwelling a little more on the pros and cons.

The biggest pro is the starkness of the picture the report paints, of where we are, of the sheer scale of the task ahead of us, and of how poor our progress has been thus far.  As was said in our summaries, very little will come as any surprise to climate activists, but to have it laid out on a planetary canvas is immensely useful – time is running out, things are getting worse faster than before, the global south is the most vulnerable, inequalities within societies are critical, all the building blocks upon which our own activities rest.  Equally, the solutions dwell on the words we cherish the most – transformation, transition, redistribution, restoration, equality, justice.

Where the report falls short is in its ambiguous use of language, such that, for all the aforementioned words, precisely how the solutions work out in practice is not clear, and probably deliberately so, in deference to the prevailing political winds.  In particular, the assumption that the work that needs to be done can happen through ‘markets’ appears wildly naïve, if not misleading.  Even more dubious is the idea that a market-based approach can ever generate the level of collaboration and cooperation on a global scale that is required when such an approach is antithetical to the very precepts of capitalism, and indeed threatens them.

In response to this idea of threat, the report focuses strongly on green technology and the financing required to roll it out, which itself places emphasis on the role of the developed world to manage the climate response in a benign fashion.  The conclusions arrived at also, at best, betray the inherent bias of modelling carried out by the developed world with all its assumptions about the world order and, at worst, reproduces or even exacerbates a neo-colonial status quo, with solutions imposed on the developing world by the developed.  Kevin Anderson’s piece in Brave New Europe lays this out far more eloquently than we ever could.

Of course, IPCC is not directly saying ‘we must do this through capitalism’ and it may be that the dependence on markets refers only to the early stages where we have to deal with ‘things as they are’, before we can move on to build a more sustainable model.  It’s possible that the authors know perfectly well that the actions needed can’t be accommodated within the existing paradigm and are aware that that point will play itself out.  Again, it’s not entirely clear – the report aims to be all things to all people, remaining consistent on the urgency of the situation while ensuring it’s not overly offensive to those who hold social and onomic power

But I’d temper criticism with a consideration of scale.  If we look at the Labour Party, at some Trade Unions, and other organisations, as you go up the hierarchy compromise and dilution tend to take over.  At the global level, as we’ve seen with recent COPs, wording gets watered down in deference to certain nations’ insistence and action is stalled.  For a report on this scale to say as much as it does is quite remarkable compared with the insipid nature of most government statements, even if the criticisms of it are perfectly valid.

Ultimately, it comes to what we make out of the report, and that brings us back to the original purpose of our summaries, to provide some bedrock for mobilising our arguments, to convey the urgency of the situation to the layperson, and to challenge inadequate solutions even where the report itself appears ambivalent.  In that regard, having the case made in this report, whatever its shortcomings, is an essential component in our struggle towards a better future.

Tahir Latif
Secretary, Greener Jobs Alliance
March 2023