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Climate ‘line in the sand’

“The 2007 IPCC report was rather a gamechanger in terms of people’s view of climate change,” says Dr Arthur Webb. His office is stacked high with maps of the Pacific, charts and technical reports. Seated behind a desk at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community’s (SPC) Applied Geoscience and Technology Division in Suva—he smiles past a computer that looks worn and tired, which seems fitting: keeping pace with Dr Webb’s schedule would challenge most mortals and machines alike. Dr Webb is referring to the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a document that provided a sobering wake-up call to the world when it was released. IPCC is currently in the process of releasing the next instalment, the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). The first section of the report was released on September 27, 2013. On the basis of growing evidence, IPCC has revised upward the level of scientific certainty, stating: “It is ‘extremely likely’ that human influence is the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century”.

In the precise language of IPCC, the terminology ‘extremely likely’ is used to indicate 95–100% probability. In other words, “Human influence on the climate system is clear” according to IPCC. Two further sections of AR5 will be released soon: one at the end of March and the other in early April. “There is no other product in the world quite like it,” says Dr Webb. The assessment is an exhaustive scientific review process, with the final product subject to review and approval by the world’s governments. “There are ambiguities and there is confusion about the science of climate change. The Assessment Report is an internationally agreed line in the sand that says: ‘This is what we know at this time’. It is a massive effort, and I think it is hugely important. It sets the scene in terms of what we understand about the climate change process,” he says. Production of AR5 has involved just a handful of experts from the Pacific Islands region, among them Dr Webb. He is recognised for his work on sea level monitoring and coastal science, particularly tropical shoreline systems, and was invited to join IPCC’s Working Group II (WG II) in 2009. The commitment is substantial and voluntary but the sacrifice, he says, is worth it.

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