The UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) has just published a new report warning of flooding, storm surges, droughts and heatwaves. ‘No one will be untouched by climate change’ quotes the Telegraph in its headline. The reporting is widespread and dramatic, and perhaps it should be. But there are dissenting voices, including one of the report’s authors, Richard Tol, who withdrew his name because he considered the language of the report summary “alarmist”.
That there should be IPCC scientists who do not agree with the IPCC’s conclusions should not surprise us. This report was the work of more than 300 scientists from 70 countries, who in turn were drawing on the research of thousands more climate scientists (it’s quite an industry now). Chris Field, one of the co-chairs of the working group behind the report, made the point on the Today programme this morning that the report — and particularly its summary — is therefore an exercise in consensus building between hundreds of different opinions. He said something along the lines of All of the authors think that the report would have been better if it had been closer to their own point of view.
All of which is entirely reasonable. This is an international body trying to put across a single position for the entire global community of climate experts. Yet it does make you ponder on the many different versions of the report summary which might have been published. That the IPCC chose this one, rather than something more optimistic, more pessimistic, more measured or more urgent, does not make it any truer than a dozen other versions of reality they might have proposed.
It’s a big day for shaping reality in and around Ukraine. A referendum, thrown together at extraordinarily short notice, will ask Crimeans if they want to rejoin Russia. Everyone already knows what the answer will be; the real question is whether the vote is legitimate.
Some clear facts. Crimea was until 1954 part of Russia. Crimea is now part of the sovereign nation of Ukraine. Most residents of Crimea are ethnic Russians, and many have expressed a preference for belonging to Russia. The government of Ukraine has had no say in the staging of the referendum, and strongly opposes it. Russian troops (or at least troops who look very like Russians) have taken control of Crimea, are facilitating the referendum, and will be militarily unopposed should they choose to enact a yes vote.
The rights and wrongs of the vote are much less clear, and that is where the opportunity — and urgent need — to shape reality lies. Russia is stressing the will of the people of Crimea, which does seem to be firmly in favour of secession. The West is stressing the sovereignty of Ukraine; secession is illegitimate unless the government agrees to it. Russia counters by arguing that the current government in Kiev is itself illegitimate, the result of an extremist coup d’etat. The West points to the deeply corrupt and vicious government it replaced as the real illegitimacy.
All of this can be seen as a grand contest to win over world opinion. Putin could take Crimea any day he likes: no one is going to intervene militarily. But the referendum, the UN resolution criticising it, and all of the speeches, demonstrations and declarations about what is or is not illegitimate are where the real battle is. Once upon a time imperial Russia or the Soviet Union would have been free to annexe any local territory it wanted, but modern Russia is too economically interconnected with the rest of the world to act with total disregard to its views. Whatever the outcome of today’s referendum, Russia will only take Crimea if Putin feels confident that at least part of world agrees with his definition of Crimean reality.