Friday, by traditional U.S. news and journalism standards, is a “slow day.” It’s the day, for instance, federal agencies and other news-makers often choose to release news they hope won’t attract much front-page or prime-time interest … or audiences’ attention. By and large, they hope that the two-day weekend will sap some of the newsworthiness and “buzz” from what in all reality is a bad-news story.

So it’s with those realities in mind that some in the U.S. climate change community have fretted that the news from IPCC due out of Stockholm on Friday, September 27 — at 10 a.m. in Sweden, making it an other-worldly 4 a.m. on the U.S. East Coast — would land with a thud in many U.S. newsrooms. Add to that the reality that the real news from the coming IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Summary for Policy Makers by and large has been reported through coverage of a series of leaks in recent weeks. (Just how accurate those leaks are in forecasting the actual release, of course, remains to be determined, but smart money is on there being few big surprises still to come at this point.)

That’s one school of thought on the newsworthiness of the scheduled release tomorrow. But step back, for another, and perhaps more realistic, view has emerged and is emerging.


This one holds that the fundamental underlying science of anthropogenic climate change has not changed markedly since the release of the 2007 AR4, and is unlikely to change greatly over the short term, meaning next few years. The new report may indeed inch-upward, reportedly from 90 to 95 percent, the level of confidence concerning the human influence on warming. But is that really such a big deal in the scheme of things? Is it somewhat analogous, for instance, to a professional baseball player’s increasing the season-long batting average by 3 or 5 percent from the previous season. Nice, of course, but really such a huge deal, particularly given that the actual level of confidence might well approach 99 percent or more?

And it’s true too that the upcoming report could well provide what scientists likely will consider a more robust body of evidence concerning greater sea-level rise. By no means unimportant, mind you, but by now pretty much taken for granted as something sorely needed to reconcile the findings from the previous assessment report.

And so it goes. A number of commentators and analysts in recent days have turned the spotlight more toward this better-nuanced understanding of what the coming initial AR5 release — remember, it’s just the start on a series that will still be in the formal release stages a year from now — portends.

  • Respected writer and analyst Andrew Freedman, with Climate Central in Princeton, N.J., posted a piece September 25 headlined “Experts Eye IPCC Reform as Report Nears Release.” He reports on a growing sense that the venerable, if not unscarred, IPCC process may well have run its course, fulfilled its most valuable objectives … and that it’s now time to seriously consider a new phase for scientific research and for efforts to engage citizens and their policy makers.
  • A Reuters wire service piece on September 24, headlined “IPCC Climate Change Reports Should be Shorter and More Focused, Experts on UN Panel Say,” quotes Oxford University’s Miles Allen expressing a view increasingly shared by many in the climate science community: “A blockbuster every six years is no longer really helpful.”
  • The Guardian’s Fiona Harvey reported from Styockholm on September 26 on last-minute ongoing negotiations among IPCC scientists as they approached their previously announced deadline for making the initial AR5 report public.
  • Brian Clark Howard reported online for National Geographic Daily News that an over-emphasis on the current 16-year warming “hiatus” and how it’s addressed in AR5 may in reality miss the more important big picture.
  • Addressing that same hiatus or “pause” issue, Berkeley physics professor Richard A. Muller, himself something of a headline maker over the past year-plus for capitalizing on his previous “skeptic” reputation to confirm what most of the science community already understood to be the case, penned a September 25 New York Times op-ed column headlined “A Pause, Not an End, to Warming.” It again parroted points largely reiterated over and over throughout much of the “responsible” climate science community, but now in a highly valued high-visibility opinion page. In doing so, Muller, not shy about bolstering his own standing, used an interesting metaphor:

    Most of us hope that global warming actually has stopped….

    Alas, I think such optimism is premature. The current pause is consistent with numerous prior pauses. When walking up stairs in a tall building, it is a mistake to interpret a landing as the end of the climb. The slow rate of warming of the recent past is consistent with the kind of variability that some of us predicted nearly a decade ago.

    There is more, lots more, analysis and commentary in advance of the scheduled September 27 IPCC AR5 preliminary release, that makes for good reading for those eager to better understand the imminent news boom (or bust). In coming days and weeks, there’s certain to be more…but certain too to be lots of chaff among the wheat.

    Inquiring minds, the grocery store check-out magazine newsstands, routinely remind us, will want to know. Wending their way through the rubble to find that veritable needle in the journalism and blogosphere haystacks will be the best way for them to do so. Amid all the 24/7 digital chatter and talk-show rabble-rousing and cable rants and raves, it won’t necessarily be easy.

    But those investing the effort are likely to be rewarded with a fuller understanding of the significance of the IPCC AR5 report and its evidence-based conclusions in general.

    And, more importantly, with a still richer appreciation of why many still consider the climate and related energy challenges facing modern society to be among the most pressing issues our global society will confront, this year, next year, next decade, and likely for decades beyond that.

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...