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Environment Magazine September/October 2008

 

October 2007

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From Uncertain to Unequivocal

With the publication of the Fourth Assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), this year marks some important shifts in our understanding of climate change and its impacts. Three working groups produced reports covering physical science (WGI); impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability (WGII); and mitigation (WGIII). The WGI report on physical science involved more than 550 authors and published a summary for policymakers in February, followed by the full report in May after a long process of review by experts and government departments around the world. The reports have been widely discussed in scientific meetings and will become a major reference source, especially since all the reports are freely available on the Internet. The WGI report was published first and attracted considerable media attention because of its apparently definitive conclusions about the rate and causes of climate change.

Perhaps the most emphatic conclusion of the WGI report is that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and that much (50 percent) of this warming is very likely (more than 90 percent) due to increases in greenhouse gas concentrations associated with human activity. These statements are much more confident than those in the 2001 IPCC report and may seem unsurprising to those who regularly read the scientific literature. But for many people who are not climate science experts, some of the important incremental shifts in the understanding of climate change are less obvious, especially as the issue has been confused by the sustained media and political attention to climate skeptics.

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