Shadow Boxing with the Climate Change Deniers or What’s Wrong with the U.N. Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change

Scientific American has come out swinging against the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its massive authoritative report, six years in the making. The complaints, described in an October 2013 editorial, “Fiddling While the World Warms” concern the fact that much of its research is dead on arrival, while the latest alarming findings (for example, on the thawing of Arctic permafrost with implications for a massive spill of greenhouse gases, and the speeded-up melting of ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic with huge implications for sea level rise) came after the Report’s two-year lead time.

The failing is the result of the Panel’s laborious review process, the fact that it waits to bundle all its findings together for a common release date, which means pertinence gets lost and the latest findings don’t make it into the bundle at all.

The editorial also points out that the Panel’s climate models have also been outclassed by more exacting versions coming out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. These have predicted more storms of greater severity.

Garden channel wetlands

The better way would be to include a more effective use of yes, the Internet! The Panel should be shoveling research out the portal as it passes muster and deal with the full-throated responses when they can have some impact, or be dismissed.

IPCC seems to be shadow boxing with climate change deniers, in the hope that they can be won over with more “certain” science, with scientific findings that are painstakingly graded according to degrees of certainty, the IPCC way. But the dynamics are all wrong.

Climate change deniers, like evolution aren’t Holocaust deniers, aren’t interested in authoritative arguments. They’re drunk on the power of no. How wonderful it must be to see climate change scientists struggling to explain why they revised (in reality, reverted to an earlier projection) the lower end of their expected warming range from 2 degrees Celsius to 1.5 C., half a degree. (The upper limit remains unchanged at 4.5 C.) This change represents a slight increase in the degree of uncertainty associated with these numbers, and changes nothing in the big picture. No such comparable conscientious attention to the research can be expected from the deniers.

Science has fallen on hard times. Like music lessons, it’s one of the first to get booted out of budgets. Studying hard, getting good marks in peer reviews, publishing in prestigious journals, writing excellent grant applications gets less and less respect. The circumstances differ between Canada and the U.S., but the net result is not many people, including scientists, seem to want their children to grow up to be scientists when instead they could go into the investment business or make laptop presentations on new potentially billion dollar apps to venture capitalists in Starbucks.

Science is leaching esteem because arguments swirling around in the popular media are given equal weight, from the most authoritative to the wacky.  The media go looking for second opinions to give their subjects context, lend an air of impartiality and pander to the reflective oppositionist out there. This is great for policy makers who really really really don’t want to scale the steep slope that must be crossed to deal with climate change.

But back to the U.N. document on climate change. Unfortunately all the refinements to the projections don’t provide a shred of advice on how that slope might be scaled.

Fortunately, UNESCO has stepped up to the challenge of providing good policy advice.  More on this in a later blog.

The Scientific American editorial referred to here is called “Fiddling While the World Warms”, one of its 10.2013 columns. It is available somewhere at www.scientificamerican.com, but access is restricted to registrants.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Report can be found at http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/uploads/WGIAR5-SPM_Approved27Sep2013.pdf

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