Is The Latest Climate Report Too Much Of A Downer? One researcher who participated in the latest U.N. report on climate change says the final product is simply too depressing. Others say the somber tone is justified — but that humans can also adapt.
NPR logo

Is The Latest Climate Report Too Much Of A Downer?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Is The Latest Climate Report Too Much Of A Downer?

Is The Latest Climate Report Too Much Of A Downer?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.


And I'm Melissa Block in Dallas.

An international panel of scientists is predicting a long list of dire consequences of climate change over the next century - spreading disease, coastal floods, suffering crops. And they say it's too late to stop at least some warming. This is the consensus of hundreds of scientists. But one of them refused to put his name on the final summary. He felt it was too much doom and gloom, and he said it failed to account for human innovation. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports on the disagreement over the report's message.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a grim accounting of our future on a warmer planet. Heat-related diseases are likely to rise. Crops will be harder to grow. Disputes over dwindling resources, like fresh water, might even lead to war. To climate economist Richard Tol, the report sounds pretty depressing.

RICHARD TOL: It's risk, risk, risk, risk, risk, risk, risk. And climate change is dangerous and we're all going to die and we're all going to starve.

BRUMFIEL: Tol is at the University of Sussex in the U.K. and helped to write the new report. He co-authored a chapter on the economic impact. But he took his name off the final summary of the report because he felt it didn't accurately account for human ingenuity. Take, for example, crop yields. The report says climate change will cause them to fall by a few percent per decade. But, Tol says, technological innovation will likely raise crop yields by 10 percent or more.

TOL: So it's not that crop yields are going to fall, but they're going to rise more slowly because of climate change. And then, of course, it doesn't sound as alarming.

BRUMFIEL: Now to be clear, Tol still believes in climate change and he still thinks it's a really serious problem. In fact, that's why he's speaking out. He thinks this report will work people up. Just when there needs to be a consensus on how to keep the world from getting even warmer, this report will move believers and deniers further apart.

TOL: I think there is a real risk of this draft further polarizing the climate debate rather than calming things down and moving us forward.

CHRIS FIELD: Richard's a great guy. I love him. But he's not in the center of the scientific community.

BRUMFIEL: That's Chris Field, who co-chaired the entire report. He says Tol is just one of over 300 lead authors.

FIELD: I don't ask them to all agree. What I ask them is to work together in a way that tells the world community what the position of the scientific community on this issue is.

BRUMFIEL: Field thinks the report appropriately cautions about some very real risks. But he does acknowledge that predicting exactly what will happen is difficult because people aren't like melting glaciers. They don't just sit there, they adapt.

FIELD: People have a tendency of changing what they do when they realize they have a problem. That's the core essence of adaptation.

BRUMFIEL: A big part of this new report is encouraging people to respond. It's clear that the temperature will rise by at least four degrees Fahrenheit this century. Field thinks improved transportation infrastructure, better disaster response and healthcare could all help lessen the impact. But he also thinks too much faith in technology is itself risky.

FIELD: One of the things that can create vulnerability is actually hubris, thinking that you're protected or that you're too rich or you're too smart to need protection.

BRUMFIEL: In the end, these two researchers are arguing about wording, not facts. Both agree that climate change is happening, that humans aren't helpless, that we can adapt, and that unless we make changes to avoid even more warming, things will get a lot worse. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.