Turning the focus to solutions

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Science  27 Nov 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6264, pp. 1007
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad8954

Next week, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP21, will be held in Paris. The goal is to achieve an international agreement to stem climate change—in particular, an agreement on how to keep global warming below a 2°C rise, or less, over preindustrial levels. As the newly elected chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), I am hopeful that an agreement will be reached that builds a more sustainable, prosperous world.


“The goal is to achieve an international agreement to stem climate change…”

There will always be more to know about climate change, but we know more than enough to act. So while the IPCC will continue to advance the world's understanding about the science of climate change, it will better serve global policy-makers by providing a more in-depth, and clear, understanding of the solutions. The focus on solutions will be a major component of my tenure at the IPCC, along with enhancing the participation of developing-country experts and improving the way in which the organization communicates.

We will need to deploy a wide range of technological measures and behavioral changes, and only major institutional and technological change will give us a better-than-even chance that global warming will not exceed a dangerous threshold. Here the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), released last year, provided a wide range of potential solutions to this challenge. Adaptation and mitigation options from AR5 are numerous and encompass not just technological but social and institutional questions and economic considerations. For example, AR5 showed that ambitious mitigation would delay expected global economic growth by 1.5 years by 2050. This does not include the numerous co-benefits of mitigation, such as improved ecosystems and human health from cleaner air, biodiversity conservation, water availability and food security, and a more secure and resilient energy supply. The options indicated by the IPCC also involve thoughtful evaluations of expected risks and benefits, such as recognizing the importance of governance, ethical dimensions, equity, value judgments, and other factors. These options also require additional knowledge about the co-benefits and adverse side effects of mitigation.

The scientific community needs to more fully understand how the private and public sectors can work together to finance adaptation and mitigation measures. And we need to better assess the costs of adaptation measures, funding, and investment. There is also a shortage of research on the economic costs of unmitigated climate change. We tend to talk about the cost of action, but what about the cost of inaction? We also need greater knowledge about the social cost of carbon emissions, which would aid in the efficient and effective pricing of carbon.

We need better information about the impact of climate change, and the solutions to it, for developing countries. That's why I am calling for training and assistance for developing-country scientists who have firsthand experience with their regions. Their knowledge will help determine the most appropriate adaptation and mitigation measures. The IPCC has already done a great deal to recruit more developing-country experts, but we can do more by identifying and networking with local centers of excellence in areas of climate science, adaptation, and mitigation. The IPCC can do the same with issues related to economic development and poverty reduction.

As the IPCC begins to plan its next assessment cycle, I am encouraged that many of my IPCC colleagues share a desire to give more prominence to what needs to be done to build a world of opportunity by tackling climate change. There is also a growing recognition at the IPCC that our reports are too difficult to understand and that something needs to be done during the next assessment cycle to ensure that AR6 can be read and understood not just by policy-makers but the average citizen. It is never easy to translate complex scientific literature into simple language, but we will have failed in our mandate to inform policy-makers if we do not reach this goal.

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