The warnings were dire, the consequences of inaction portrayed to be catastrophic and the proposed solutions made to seem within reach. Yet the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's compendium on global warming published April 13 — the body’s third in the past year — has already largely faded into the background of the American news cycle.
The next major climate report from the IPCC won’t come out for another four to seven years — if it’s approved at all. Meanwhile, though the vast majority of Americans claim they’d support limits on greenhouse gas emissions, even at some economic cost, surveys have shown that fewer and fewer citizens rank global warming as one of the nation’s top priorities.
Conservatives and industry groups have also kept up the push against tighter limits on greenhouse gases. The Environmental Protection Agency's initiative to introduce stricter emissions regulations for power plants, for example, will lead to "higher electricity costs, lost jobs and a weaker economy,” said Laura Sheehan, senior vice president of communications for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, in a statement.
Taken together, all this raises a question for environmental advocates: Well, what now?
“There seems to be a debate going on on some level in the advocacy community about exactly what the right, next step is,” says Billy Pizer, a professor of public policy, economics and environment at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy. “What do you do if you’re really passionate about this issue, what do you do if you want to see accelerated progress? How do you motivate people?”
Even within the IPCC itself, “they are evaluating internally if they will do this again,” an IPCC spokeswoman say. “Is this the same formula they want to pursue as an organization? Are there other ways to do this?”
It’s a question that’s bedeviled climate advocates for years, if not decades. How does one drum-up support for an issue that’s at once urgent and potentially calamitous, yet whose main effects won’t be felt for decades?
“I don’t see the IPCC report changing much as far as U.S. policy goes,” says David Konisky, a public policy professor at Georgetown University who studies environmental politics and policy. “The scientists are getting more and more resolute about the impact of climate change. Congress will continue to, you know, talk about things. But I don’t really anticipate it leading to any sort of legislative initiative.”
Daniel J. Weiss, though, senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, argues the IPCC reports' most effective role may actually be as a long-term “tool” for advocates.
“The fact that it’s a one-day story for the media says a lot more about the media than about the urgency to act to slow climate change,” Weiss says. “The IPCC provided voluminous documentation of what we already knew to be true — it’s analogous to another study on cigarette smoking on lung cancer. The data that it’s gathered is going to be a tool that advocates can use to remind people of the urgency to act.”
A final summary of the IPCC’s three reports from the past year is scheduled to be published in September. More reports beyond the IPCC are also set to be released: a National Climate Assessment of how global warming has been affecting different regions of the U.S. is expected to come out in May, and the EPA is set to unveil its new emissions rules for existing power plants in June.
Both measures, and especially the EPA regulations, show that some new climate protections are still achievable, experts argue.
“I think the prospects for climate change policy are going to depend on not only how serious climate change ranks in public opinion polls, but also in how costly the policy looks,” says Jonathan Wiener, a professor of law, environmental policy and public policy at Duke Law School, and one of the authors of the IPCC report released earlier this month. “If the policy looks more costly, people tend to be wary of saying it’s a serious problem.”
Unusually intense storms, droughts and heatwaves this summer may also motivate climate action.
"Extreme weather events will continue to draw attention," Weiss says.