Climate change: Has the IPCC passed its use-by date? Time for new independent climate science body
By Renfrey Clarke
February 21, 2010 -- The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an organisation whose time has passed. Preferably within the next year or so, it needs to be dismantled.
As verdicts go, that might seem to have been plucked from the mouths of the climate-denialist right, of the Herald-Sun’s far-right columnist Andrew Bolt or the flat-earthers at Rupert Murdoch's Australian. After all, right-wing media outlets in recent months have run a lurid campaign against the IPCC. The UN body, which coordinates thousands of volunteer scientists in assessing and reporting on research into climate change, is accused of making gross errors and of systematically exaggerating the dangers of global warming.
The facts are quite different. As explained in detail on February 14 by the RealClimate blog (“Climate science from climate scientists”), the IPCC’s critics have identified only one undoubted error in the 2800 pages of its Fourth Assessment Report (“AR4”), released over the course of 2007. On other points assailed by the critics, it is the criticisms that are in error, or there are legitimate differences of interpretation. This result, though, has not stopped newspapers such as the London Sunday Times and the Australian from painting the authority of the IPCC as deeply compromised.
If the IPCC is almost entirely in the clear, why does it need to pass from the scene? Not because its core functions have ceased to be necessary. But the challenges before defenders of climate science have changed, and different structures are now required.
In its AR4 report, the IPCC draws two key conclusions with crushing finality: the Earth is heating up, and anthropogenic (that is, human-caused) greenhouse gas emissions are primarily to blame. The reality of global warming is described as “unequivocal” – a usage essentially unique in the context of the earth sciences, where findings routinely come with specified degrees of uncertainty attached.
That human beings are mainly responsible is rated as “highly likely”, with the probability defined as greater than 90 per cent. This is the highest degree of likelihood that earth and life sciences normally assign to anything – whether the functioning of evolution, the link between smoking and cancer, or the slow movement of continents across the face of the Earth.
With the science so categorical, inaction on climate change should be impossible for any government concerned to protect its citizens. But the real world is not so caring or reasonable. After losing the key scientific battles, the deniers – along with those who publish and finance them – are gunning for the scientists, seeking to destroy their credibility through the use of innuendo, spin and outright lies. As the campaigning bites, and public belief in global warming falters, governments do a good imitation of a rabbit in the headlights.
To defend scientific truth in this transformed struggle, the IPCC is the wrong body.
But first, let’s address the AR4’s real and alleged flaws, that supposedly have left orthodox climate science hopelessly undermined.
Morsel of error
The morsel of error over which the deniers are salivating appears in the report’s “Working Group 2” (WG2) section, which assesses the impacts of climate change on society and ecosystems. The two-sentence passage asserts wrongly that 80 per cent of Himalayan glacier area will very likely be gone by 2035. Glaciologists have since objected that the Himalayan ice is too high and massive to melt in less than hundreds of years, even with accelerated warming.
Attributed variously to speculation or a misprint, the error has seen charges of amateurism and poor process levelled at Indian scientific bodies. But the sentences concerned must be weighed against a detailed, 45-page chapter on glaciers, snow and ice in the AR4’s core “Working Group 1” section, which deals with the basis of climate change in the physical sciences. On this chapter, the deniers have bent their lances in vain.
Another “error” touted gleefully by the deniers concerns the area of the Netherlands that is subject to flooding from the sea. The WG2 report cites a Dutch government agency to the effect that 55 per cent of the country’s area is below sea level. The correct figure, the deniers thunder, is a mere 30 per cent.
Indeed, only about 30 per cent of the Netherlands is below mean sea level. But far more of the country is at risk of being flooded with seawater. As much as 60 per cent of Dutch territory lies below the peak sea level reached during storm surges.
A further criticism concerns forest dieback in the Amazon basin. The WG2 report warns:
Up to 40 per cent of the Amazonian forest could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation; this means that the tropical vegetation, hydrology and climate system in South America could change very rapidly to another steady state ...
To the deniers this statement is activist hearsay, sourced from a less-than-reliable 2000 report for the World Wildlife Fund. In fact, the WWF drew on a peer-reviewed 1999 article prepared by a team headed by scientist Daniel Nepstad, and published in the prestigious journal Nature. Nepstad has now stated that he regards the AR4 passage as correct.
A similar complaint, aimed at a passage which projects a decline of as much as 50 per cent by 2020 in yields from rain-fed agriculture in parts of Africa, also falls flat. The projection is referenced properly to another section of the WG2 report, which Real Climate describes as “not controversial”.
In a final case, it is the critics whose scruples and professionalism have finished up under fire. As reported by Real Climate, journalist Jonathan Leake in the Sunday Times accused the IPCC of wrongly linking global warming to natural disasters. The IPCC has hit back, pointing to errors in Leake’s “misleading and baseless story”.
In strict scientific terms, the climate-change deniers have failed to take more than a single point off the IPCC. But although such victories for science are important, they are not decisive. The more compelling the proof wielded by the scientists become, the more the deniers shift onto the terrain of irrelevancies, half truths, personalities and perceptions.
Here, the scientists are at a fundamental disadvantage. If scientists distort or “cherry pick” facts, they stand to lose their jobs. Not so the deniers, who are more likely to move up a rung in their editorial offices or right-wing think tanks. For scientists, slandering holders of opposing views is career-ending behaviour; for the deniers, it is a stock-in-trade.
In this war of perceptions, the IPCC suffers from the fact that it is a single, prominent target. Doubts that are implanted about particular questions become doubts about the IPCC – and by implication, climate science – as a whole. The model of a single association of scientists, speaking undividedly on climate change, emerges paradoxically as a weakness. A less monolithic structure is needed, with critics forced to take issue with specific findings by particular researchers.
Good science, of course, will remain instrumental for defeating the lies. But the answers must be prompt, and here the structures of the IPCC are a crippling drawback. The exhaustive checking and consultation practised by the body makes for authority, but not for speed. So far, the IPCC has issued four reports at intervals of five or six years. For the AR4 report, the cut-off point for new findings was July 2006; in a swiftly advancing area, the AR4 now represents a “snapshot” of the science as it was nearly four years ago.
With IPCC reports used as “official” science, the long intervals between them – the next full report is due in 2014 – allow governments to drag their feet, ignoring new research for years until the IPCC has assessed and incorporated it. And by allowing new peer-reviewed findings to be treated as provisional, the IPCC’s tardiness has helped create the perverse situation in which public concern at climate change is ebbing, even while new evidence builds the case for urgent action almost to the point of overkill.
Ironically, considering the charges of alarmism, the structures of the IPCC are also responsible for a pronounced bias toward conservatism and understatement. The influential Summary for Policymakers sections of the reports have to be scrutinised and approved by representatives of around 100 UN member governments, all of whom have power of veto. All the central assertions of the AR4 were signed off by representatives of the US, China and Saudi Arabia. In his memoir, The Patient from Hell, Stanford University climate scientist and former IPCC author Stephen Schneider recounts how in the preparation of the 2001 AR3 report, good science was manipulated until it met the demands of officials from oil-producing countries.
Adding to the conservatism of the IPCC’s reports is the habitual caution of scientists, trained to reject any assertion which, they suspect, has not been demonstrated with sufficient rigor. The effect, after several stages of review by hundreds of researchers, tends to be “lowest common denominator” science. Since new citations for the AR4 were cut off in 2006, the remarkably consistent trend has been for new observed data to point to more rapid warming, and more severe impacts, than the IPCC’s report suggests. Earth scientist Andrew Glikson of the Australian National University noted in a February 2010 The people’s voice blog:
… to date, the IPCC reports have underestimated ice melt rates, sea level rise, feedback events and the proximity of tipping points, not least the looming release of hundreds of gigatonnes of carbon as methane from permafrost, lake sediments and bogs.
A Wikipedia model?
If a new body for assessing and reporting climate change science is needed, what might it look like? An intriguing suggestion is that the framework for an IPCC successor should be a kind of scientists’ Wikipedia, involving the continuous assessment and incorporation of fresh evidence. Under this model, submissions would be made by researchers following the process of peer review. The submissions would be moderated, and the standing text rewritten, by rotating panels of experts in various fields. New findings could thus be incorporated in months rather than years.
The United Nations would be the wrong umbrella for such a body, which would need to be “owned” by working scientists. The new structures might be funded by an association of national academies of sciences. Independent of governments in a way the UN is not, such an association would have formidable prestige. It would still be demonised by climate-change deniers and their backers, but it would be able to hit back in a way the IPCC, with its government representatives, finds difficult. Importantly, it would be better placed to capture public imagination and support.
Arguably, assessments by scientific panels within a Wikipedia-type structure would not have the same authority as reviews by hundreds of scientists over whole years. But the problem, with only the rarest exceptions, is not that the science lacks authority. The IPCC already has the evidence to be categorical in its key warnings – and this did not prevent, for example, the fiasco at Copenhagen.
The only way to prevent further “Copenhagens” is through the political mobilisation, in scores of millions, of world citizens who know the science and grasp its implications. By making authoritative findings more accessible and timely, the suggested structures would aid in this mobilisation – which might just save us all.
[A shorter version of this article first appeared Green Left Weekly. Renfrey Clarke is a climate change activist and member of the Socialist Alliance in Adelaide, South Australia.]