[This is a cross post for a recently published paper. I post it here, as I think it is relevant to climate change and EA and it is a rather short read. The identified research gap shows a possible research goal for EAs that do climate change research.  

It is a follow up  to Betting on the best case: higher end warming is underrepresented in research.

The paper is published in Open Access in the journal Earth's Future.]

 

Focus of the IPCC Assessment Reports Has Shifted to Lower Temperatures

Florian U. Jehn1,*, Luke Kemp2, Ekaterina Ilin3, Christoph Funk4,  Jason R. Wang5, Lutz Breuer1,4

 

Key Points

The focus of the IPCC has shifted to lower temperatures, beginning with assessment report 5

Only 14 % of the temperature mentions in assessment report 6 are above 2°C, in contrast to our current trajectory in which temperatures above 2°C seem likely

 

Abstract 

We focus on how different global temperature increases represented in IPCC reports have shifted over time. While the first four assessment reports had a roughly equal focus on temperatures above and below 2°C, the more recent fifth and sixth assessment reports have a considerably stronger focus on warming below 2°C. This is concerning as warming above 2°C is more likely given current emissions trajectories and is more influential on climate risk assessments.

 

1 Introduction

In an earlier study, we showed that the coverage of the IPCC reports (2013-2019) disproportionately focused on lower temperatures of 1.5-2.0°C above pre-industrial levels (Florian U Jehn et al., 2021). This suggests a skew in the literature that others also have observed (Lynas, 2020; Wagner & Weitzman, 2015; Wallace-Wells, 2019). This concentration on lower temperature ranges fits the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement. However, it does not reflect the most likely trajectories, and misses the importance of knowing the effects of higher temperature for risk assessments.  Higher levels of warming have non-linear impacts (Schellnhuber et al., 2016) and significantly influence the costs (Quiggin, 2018), risks (Dietz, 2011), and modeling of climate change (Weitzman, 2009). Welfare estimates strongly depend on low-probability, high-impact risks, which are heightened under higher temperature scenarios (Dietz, 2011). Knowledge of extreme impacts from higher-end warming is also vital for risk management under uncertainty, such as through the use of the minimax principle (ranking options by their plausible worst-case) (Kunreuther et al., 2013).

How has the coverage of different temperature ranges varied over time in IPCC reports, and do the reports of Working Group I, II and III of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) continue the previously observed bias? To assess this we text-mine all available IPCC reports that have been published up until 11.04.2022. By counting the mentions of different levels of warming, we examine how the research focus summarized in the IPCC reports has shifted from the first assessment report until today. This is an imperfect but useful proxy for surveying the spread of the broader literature.

 

2 Materials and Methods

We extracted the text from all IPCC special, supplementary, synthesis, and working group reports that have been published until 11.04.2022 (this includes the report of working group III for AR6). All reports have been published in Portable Document Format (PDF). We used the hierarchical VIsual LAyout (H-VILA) model (Shen et al., 2022) for a structured content extraction of the PDFs. The text was then mined for the mentions of the temperatures in the format ' X°C'. This includes temperature mentions from figures and figure captions. Reports mentioning 10 or fewer temperatures overall were excluded from further analysis. This analysis was repeated for all mentions for reasons for concern.

The approximate true positive rate was determined by looking at a random sample of 60 mentions per temperature. 60 mentions was decided on as a sufficient sample since manually checking all 11,000 mentions was unfeasible, and this size produced consistent results. Those mentions were checked if they were referring to a change in global mean air temperature or something different. Therefore, mentions of for example climate sensitivity or local temperature changes were counted as false positives.

 

3 Results and Discussion

Our results show that the focus of the literature, as summarized by the IPCC, has shifted considerably over time (Figure 1). The first four assessment reports had a similar coverage of different temperatures. Over this time there was even a small amount of increased coverage of temperatures above 4°C, this trend reversed with the fifth assessment report. The fifth assessment report had a strong shift towards covering 2°C. There was significantly less coverage of temperatures above 4°C. This pattern continued in the sixth assessment report, which has an even stronger emphasis on 1.5°C and 2°C. Cover of higher temperatures above 4°C declined further still. Synthesis reports tend to have the most balanced representation of temperatures compared to other IPCC reports (special, supplementary, and working groups). The shift in AR6 to lower temperatures is partly caused by the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. However, even if we would remove it from our analysis, the mentions of 1.5°C in AR6 would only drop from 49 % to 45 %. The reports of working group I, II and III also have a strong focus on 1.5°C.

In the past assessment reports, the working group I reports have usually contained the strongest focus on higher temperatures, as they mainly compare impacts from RCP2.6 and RCP8.5 scenarios. This pattern continues in AR6, where the report of working group I has a stronger focus on higher temperatures than the reports of working group II and III.

Other areas in the IPCC display no such trends? The five reasons for concern (Zommers et al., 2020)  do not show such a change over time. However, risk levels for every single one of the reasons for concern at a given temperature have generally increased with each assessment (Zommers et al., 2020). All of the reasons for concern have a high or very high risk at 2-3°C, yet we increasingly focus on lower temperatures.

Figure 1: Occurrences of temperatures mentioned in the IPCC assessment reports over time. Includes all working group reports, special reports, and synthesis reports published until 11 April 2022 with more than 10 temperature mentions overall.

The trends also appear unlikely to be explained by changes in emissions trajectories. The current trajectory puts the world on track for a temperature rise between 2.1-3.9°C by 2100 (Liu & Raftery, 2021). Median estimates assuming full implementation of existing climate policies stand at 2.5-2.9°C and for pledges 2.4°C (for 2030 targets) by  2100 (Climate Action Tracker, 2021). Temperatures might still get higher, due to tipping points (Lenton et al., 2019) and carbon cycle feedbacks (Hausfather, 2021). Hence, even fairly optimistic trajectories incur warming above the range that the literature appears focused on. The worst-case emissions pathway of RCP8.5 (now SSP5-8.5) now seems unlikely due to increased policy action and the associated falling costs of renewable energy (Hausfather & Peters, 2020). However, the IPCC does not attach probabilities to scenarios, and the historical variability in emissions makes a range of global scenarios plausible (Pedersen et al., 2020). Moreover, carbon cycle feedbacks and climate sensitivity can lead to SSP5-8.5 level temperatures being reached with lower anthropogenic emissions.

Similarly, equilibrium climate sensitivity (the amount of warming caused by a doubling of CO2 concentrations once the climate system has come to equilibrium) does not appear to explain the trend. In AR6, the IPCC reported a narrowed ‘very likely’ ECS range (90-100% likelihood) of 2-5°C. This is down from 1-6°C in AR5. While the recent narrowing of climate sensitivity makes higher temperatures unlikely, it also rules out a high likelihood of ending up at 2°C or lower (Sherwood et al., 2020). Indeed, a climate sensitivity of 1.5°C has also been ruled out, while there is only medium confidence of sensitivity being below 5°C. High-end warming seems less likely, but the probability of lower-end warming is even lower. Hence, changes to climate sensitivity do not match the increased focus on the low-temperature rise over time.   Our results also show variation between the different kinds of reports (special, supplementary, synthesis, working group). We find that synthesis reports are usually those with the most balanced representation of temperatures, which might imply that policymakers are better informed by the IPCC as one might think after studying Figure 1. 

The shorter-term measurement of transient climate sensitivity (TCR) is a more compelling explanatory factor. The likely range for TCR has narrowed from 1.1-3.1°C in AR1 to 1.4-2.2°C in AR6. Yet this seems unlikely to account for the full extent of the observed pattern, and does not explain the shift towards lower temperature scenarios since it is a narrowing of a range, not just a loss of high-end sensitivity. Moreover, it seems unlikely (and imprudent) that the wider literature is only focused on shorter-term temperature changes.

One partial explanation could be a shift towards mid-21st century timeframes after the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. This would lead to more mentions of lower temperatures. However,  if we count the years mentioned in the assessment report the pattern is that AR4, 5 and 6 show a relatively similar distribution. They only differ in their mentions of the years 2000, 2010 and 2020. The main shift happened from AR3 to AR4. Therefore, it is not a compelling explanation for the pattern detected in our analysis of the temperature mentioned.

Our analysis is based on all temperature mentions found in the IPCC. However, higher temperatures are often referring not to changes in global mean air temperature, but to other phenomena like local air temperature change or possible values for ECS. This means the approximate true positive rate of temperature mentions relating to a change in global mean air temperature decreases with rising temperatures. Temperatures <= 4°C have approximate true positive rates of around 70-90 %, while temperatures > 4°C have an approximate true positive rate of 10-40 %. Therefore, there is an even larger gap when it comes to our understanding of higher temperatures than previously assumed. Especially, as those true positive temperatures > 4°C often refer to past changes in global mean temperature and not to modeling results.

 

Conclusions

Overall, our results show that the scientific literature covered in the IPCC has increasingly shifted to 1.5 and 2°C. This is likely due to the goals of the Paris Agreement, as all reports published after 2015 skew heavily towards 1.5°C and 2°C.  This is understandable when it comes to scientific incentives, but not from the perspective of probability and risk assessment. Recent updates on climate sensitivity and emission trajectories are, in some regards, more optimistic than past assessments, but not optimistic enough to justify ignoring higher-end warming scenarios. There is still a gap in climate research, and we are still “betting on the best case”. We need to shift our gaze further up the global thermostat.

 

Acknowledgments

LB and CF acknowledge support from the SDGnexus Network (Grant No. 57526248) funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) from funds of Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation (BMZ) in the frame of the program 'exceed—Hochschulexzellenz in der Entwicklungszusammenarbeit'. LK acknowledges funding from the Templeton World Charity Foundation.

 

Data availability

All code, data (including the raw strings of the IPCC reports), and supplementary figures can be found in the repository of this paper (Jehn, 2022). Direct link: https://github.com/florianjehn/IPCC-Reports-Focus-Overview, last access: 23.04.2022.

 

References

Climate Action Tracker. (2021). Glasgow’s 2030 credibility gap: net zero’s lip service to climate action. Retrieved January 6, 2022, from https://climateactiontracker.org/publications/glasgows-2030-credibility-gap-net-zeros-lip-service-to-climate-action/

Dietz, S. (2011). High Impact, Low Probability: An Empirical Analysis of Risk in the Economics of Climate Change (SSRN Scholarly Paper No. ID 1437089). Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network. Retrieved from https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=1437089

Hausfather, Z. (2021). Flattening the Curve of Future Emissions. Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://thebreakthrough.org/issues/energy/flattening-the-curve-of-future-emissions

Hausfather, Z., & Peters, G. P. (2020). Emissions – the ‘business as usual’ story is misleading. Nature, 577(7792), 618–620, doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-00177–3.

Jehn, Florian U, Schneider, M., Wang, J. R., Kemp, L., & Breuer, L. (2021). Betting on the best case: higher end warming is underrepresented in research. Environmental Research Letters, 16(8), 084036. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ac13ef

Jehn, Florian Ulrich. (2022). jlu-ilr-hydro/IPCC-Reports-Focus-Overview: Release for publication (Version 1.0). Zenodo. https://doi.org/10.5281/ZENODO.5962850

Kunreuther, H., Heal, G., Allen, M., Edenhofer, O., Field, C. B., & Yohe, G. (2013). Risk management and climate change. Nature Climate Change, 3(5), 447–450. https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1740

Lenton, T. M., Rockström, J., Gaffney, O., Rahmstorf, S., Richardson, K., Steffen, W., & Schellnhuber, H. J. (2019). Climate tipping points — too risky to bet against. Nature, 575(7784), 592–595. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-03595-0

Liu, P. R., & Raftery, A. E. (2021). Country-based rate of emissions reductions should increase by 80% beyond nationally determined contributions to meet the 2 °C target. Communications Earth & Environment, 2(1), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43247-021-00097-8

Lynas, M. (2020). Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency. Fourth Estate.

Pedersen, J. S. T., van Vuuren, D. P., Aparício, B. A., Swart, R., Gupta, J., & Santos, F. D. (2020). Variability in historical emissions trends suggests a need for a wide range of global scenarios and regional analyses. Communications Earth & Environment, 1(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43247-020-00045-y

Quiggin, J. (2018). The Importance of ‘Extremely Unlikely’ Events: Tail Risk and the Costs of Climate Change (SSRN Scholarly Paper No. ID 3096195). Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8489.12238

Schellnhuber, H., Serdeczny, O., Adams, S., Köhler, C., Otto, I., & Schleussner, C.-F. (2016). The Challenge of a 4°C World by 2100 (Vol. 10, pp. 267–283). https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-43884-9_11

Shen, Z., Lo, K., Wang, L. L., Kuehl, B., Weld, D. S., & Downey, D. (2022). VILA: Improving Structured Content Extraction from Scientific PDFs Using Visual Layout Groups. ArXiv:2106.00676 [Cs]. Retrieved from http://arxiv.org/abs/2106.00676

Sherwood, S., Webb, M. J., Annan, J. D., Armour, K. C., Forster, P. M., Hargreaves, J. C., et al. (2020). An assessment of Earth’s climate sensitivity using multiple lines of evidence. Reviews of Geophysics, e2019RG000678, doi: 10.1029/2019RG000678.

Wagner, G., & Weitzman, M. L. (2015). Climate shock: the economic consequences of a hotter planet. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Wallace-Wells, D. (2019). The uninhabitable earth: life after warming.

Weitzman, M. L. (2009). On Modeling and Interpreting the Economics of Catastrophic Climate Change. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 91(1), 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1162/rest.91.1.1

Zommers, Z., Marbaix, P., Fischlin, A., Ibrahim, Z. Z., Grant, S., Magnan, A. K., et al. (2020). Burning embers: towards more transparent and robust climate-change risk assessments. Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, 1(10), 516–529. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-020-0088-0

 

Author Information

1Institute for Landscape Ecology and Resources Management (ILR), Research Centre for BioSystems, Land Use and Nutrition (iFZ), Justus Liebig University Giessen, Heinrich-Buff-Ring 26, 35390 Giessen, Germany

2Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, University of Cambridge, 14 Mill Lane, Cambridge, UK

3Leibniz-Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam (AIP), Potsdam, Germany

4Centre for International Development and Environmental Research (ZEU), Justus Liebig University Giessen, Senckenbergstrasse 3, 35392 Giessen, Germany

5Independent Researcher, Edmonton, Canada

*Correspondence to: Florian U. Jehn (florian.u.jehn@posteo.de)

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16 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:16 AM
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I appreciate this report and the effort that went into it. That being said, I think it's overly pessimistic considering the evidence we currently have. [1] [2]

I'd bet $1000 at 1:1 odds that we won't see warming over 2°C by 2100.

I'd be happy to take a betting approach that allows for an earlier resolution - I think Tamay Besiroglu described one such procedure somewhere. I can dig it up if anyone wants to take my bet.

Alternatively I would be happy to bet $100 that IPCC projections by 2032 will imply less than 50% probability of higher than 2°C warming by 2100.

[1] https://mobile.twitter.com/ramez/status/1514355921815748610

[2] https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/ckPSrWeghc4gNsShK/good-news-on-climate-change

Thanks for your comment. Unsurprisingly, I am less optimistic. While I also think that climate news gotten better over the last years, I still think there is a big chance we end up at over 2°C. The Twitter thread you linked to says "It finds that, if all the countries of the world fulfilled their climate commitments, the world would most likely limit climate change to just under 2 degrees C." That's quite a big if. 

The post by John and Johannes mainly argues that extreme warming is not likely, which I also agree with. However, I see the research gap more in the range 2°-3.5°C. 

Finally, even if our median trajectory would aim below 2 °C, we still should do more research above 2°C . Climate damage does increase considerably for higher temperatures and due to uncertainties in the climate sensitivity we still could end up there. 

I'm happy to take on your second bet. Let me know how you want to implement that. 

I'd also consider the first one depending on the implementation. However, betting is easier if you have lots of money, which I don't. 

Good points, I agree that the articles I linked dont directly imply a less than 50% chance of 2ºC warming.

And FWIW Metaculus disagrees with me here, the community prediction is 85% probability of >2ºC warming.

I still hold my position, where my model is that:

  1. Predictions today are much more optimistic than predictions 10 years ago
  2. I expect that trend to continue, because we keep understimating social and tech progreess
  3. I think that the academic process is biased towards being more pessimistic on climate change than the evidence warrants, because of policy concerns. I still expect them to update in the right direction, but rather slowly.

Let´s go with the second bet since it seems easier to orchestrate.

I´m actually not familiar with how the IPCC exactly reports their distributions. Do you (or anyone else reading this) want to suggest what would be the correct way to read the median temperature increase implied by what would be the 2032 IPCC report?

I get your reasons and I hope I lose the 100 $. I also think the probable temperature for 2100 will continue to go down. However, we still have quite a long way to go to get to 2°C. 

The IPCC does not really attach probabilities to temperatures. Therefore, it is not really possible to directly go for the IPCC reports as resolution. One possibility would be the Internationale Energy Agency. They regularly publish estimates of likely temperature trajectories. Their current estimate is that with currently (in 2021) stated policies we'll get 2.6°C in 2100. We could use the median estimate for stated policies in their report for 2032.  

As they have been around since 1974, it seems likely they will continue to exist in until 2032. However, they might chance the way they do their reporting, so I am not sure if this is a great way to resolve this.

Sounds reasonable enough to me.

The bet will resolve in your favor if the median temperature increase in the stated policies scenario of the 2032 IEA report is above 2°C.

If the IEA report does not exist or does not report an equivalent of their stated policies scenario the bet resolves ambiguously.

Very curious to see what will actually happen!

Alright, that's settled then. Also looking forward to resolution!

Major kudos to both of you for this bet. I'll probably refer to this thread in future as a great example of respectful, productive disagreement!

As I mentioned in my comment on your earlier post, I don't think the headline claim here is correct. The  majority of the impacts literature focuses on the impacts of RCP8.5, the highest emissions pathway, which implies 4.3 degrees of warming. Moreover, often, papers use RCP8.5 in combination with Shared socioeconomic pathway 3, a socioeconomic future which has low economic growth especially for the poorest countries. SSP3  is not actually compatible with RCP8.5. For this reason, the impacts literature has been criticised, in my view correctly, for being excessively pessimistic. So, I think the reverse of what you say is correct

I don't see how this contradicts with the paper above. It does not say we should focus on RCP8.5 or a warming of 4.3°C. The main takeaway is the IPCC reports now focus on lower temperatures as they did before. I think this implies a shift in research. If you have another explanation for this I'd be happy to hear it. 

Hiya,  I think the latest IPCC report reflects the literature in that it also focuses on RCP8.5 (i.e. 4 degrees). You have sampled temperature mentions but I think if you has sampled RCP mentions, your main finding would no longer stand.

For example, for the latest IPCC report, pretty much every graph includes the impact of RCP8.5. 

Agriculture

Ocean ecosystems

Coral reef

Shoreline change

Phytoplankton phenology

Marine species richness

Marine biomass

etc

We also looked into the RCP mentions. Going from AR5 to AR6 RCP8.5 increases ~ 10 %. Same goes for RCP2.5. The change is mainly caused by RCP6.0 mentioned less. RCP4.5 roughly stays the same. 

As the RCPs weren't really used before AR5, we cannot compare it to anything before that. This is also one of the reason for using temperature, as we can look compare all reports and not only the last two. 

The shift in temperature mentions is way stronger than the shift in RCPs. Especially if you compare it to the reports before AR5. 

I think the shift in temperature focus is partly caused by a shift in RCPs, partly by more constrained values of equilibrium climate sensitivity and mainly by the focus on the Paris Agreement. 

I guess my main questions to you are: 

  • What do you think caused the shift in temperature focus?
  • What do you think this shift implies, if not a change in research focus?

I think the shift in temperature focus is almost entirely because of the Paris Agreement. It's pretty natural that they would mention 2 degrees and 1.5 degrees a lot given Paris. Indeed, they had a special report on 1.5 degrees for that reason. I don't think it implies a change in research focus in the main reports since, as we have seen almost all impacts lit assesses the effects of RCP8.5. 

Given that the RCP mentions have been pretty constant (barring RCP6 being mentioned less), I don't really see that there has been any change in research focus. I especially don't think it is true to say that the climate science literature is ignoring impacts of more than 3 degrees: that is just very clear if you dig into the impacts literature on any particular impact. In fact, the impacts literature focuses a lot on 4.3 degrees and assumes that we will have little adaptive capacity to deal with that. 

I strongly share John's intuition that this is primarily an artefact of talking about desired temperature targets in the IPPC report rather than a change in the foci of the research that the IPCC reports on.

Would it be possible to test this by denoting which share of the 0-2 degree mentions are surrounded by words like "Paris Agreement", "policy targets", "ideally", "well below" etc. (i.e. words that typically co-occur with the statement of the ambition of the Paris Agreement) . Or, alternatively, by focusing on the climate science & impact sections of the IPCC reports? 

Good idea. I'll look into this when I find the time and report back here. 

Our conversation kinda feels like to me that we are talking a bit past each other. As I understand your message you are saying that the shift in temperature focus is due to the Paris Agreement. This is also what we say in the paper. However, you disagree in the conclusions from that, by saying that this does not imply a focus shift. 

And this is the part I don't get. If the IPCC focuses on different things due to the Paris Agreement, how is this not a shift in research focus? Especially after you said in your post before that your statement is based on a strong increase in the mentions of RCP8.5, which I showed to not have happened. 

Concerning your statement: "I especially don't think it is true to say that the climate science literature is ignoring impacts of more than 3 degree". The paper does not claim that we ignore impacts of more than 3 degrees,  merely that our focus has shifted away from that. 

 

Could it be that our crux is that my model is something like:

  • Temperatures are more important to look at, because they are what ultimately decides the impact of climate change. Therefore,  a shift in them is really concerning.

While your model seems to me: 

  • Only RCPs are important and it does not really matter which temperatures they ultimately look at. As long as RCP8.5 is studied a lot, you cannot say that higher warming is underresearched. 
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