An Australian ecosocialist argues that the framework for climate science has to change to provide faster responses that meet today’s challenges
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an organisation whose time has passed. It needs to be dismantled.
As verdicts go, that might seem plucked from the mouths of the climate-denier right, of Herald Sun attack dog Andrew Bolt or the flat-earthers at the 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 scientists in assessing and reporting on climate change research, is accused of gross errors and systematically exaggerating the dangers of global warming.
The facts are different.
RealClimate blog (“Climate science from climate scientists”) explained in detail on February 14 that the IPCC’s critics have identified only one undoubted error in the 2800 pages of its 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4).
On other points assailed by the critics, it is the criticisms that are in error or there are legitimate differences of interpretation.
This has not stopped papers 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 go?
Not because its functions are no longer necessary. Rather the challenges facing climate scientists 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 human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are primarily to blame.
The reality of global warming is described as “unequivocal” — something 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%. This is the highest degree of likelihood that the earth and life sciences normally assign to anything — such as the functioning of evolution, the link between smoking and cancer, and 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 the powerful interests that 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 look at the AR4’s real and alleged flaws, that supposedly have left orthodox climate science hopelessly undermined.
Morsel of error
The morsel of error the deniers are salivating over 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% of the Himalayan glacier area will very likely be gone by 2035. Glaciologists have since objected that the Himalayan ice is too high and massive to completely 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 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% of the country’s area is below sea level. The correct figure, the deniers thunder, is a mere 30%.
However, far more of the country is at risk of being flooded with seawater. As much as 60% 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 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.
A similar complaint, aimed at a passage that projects a decline of as much as 50% 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 RealClimate described as “not controversial”.
In a final case, it is the critics whose scruples and professionalism have finished up under fire. As reported by RealClimate, 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 deniers have failed to take more than a single point off the IPCC. But increasingly, such outcomes will be irrelevant.
No longer is the struggle solely, or primarily, about scientific truth. Instead, it is very much about politics 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 newspaper offices or right-wing think tanks when they misrepresent the facts.
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.
A less monolithic structure is needed, with critics forced to take issue with specific findings by particular researchers.
Only good science, of course, can ultimately defeat the lies. But the answers must be prompt. 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.
For the most recent report, the cut-off point for new findings was July 2006; in a swiftly-changing field, the AR4 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 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.
Despite the charges of alarmism, the IPCC suffers from an innate bias toward conservatism and understatement. The influential Summary for Policymakers sections of its reports have to be scrutinised and approved by representatives of about 100 UN member governments, who have power of veto.
All the key assertions of the AR4 were signed off by representatives of big polluters such as US, China and Saudi Arabia.
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 akin to Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia to which information can be added or edited by anyone subject to a review system, but with much more stringent processes.
This would allow fresh evidence to be continuously assessed and incorporated.
Under this model, findings would be submitted by researchers after passing 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 overseen and 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 and authority.
It would still be demonised by deniers and their backers, but it would be able to hit back in a way the IPCC, with its government representatives, finds difficult.
Arguably, assessments by scientific panels within a Wikipedia-type structure would not have the same authority as review by multitudes of scientists over whole years.
But the IPCC has long had the evidence allowing it to be categorical in its key warnings — and this did not prevent, for example, the fiasco at Copenhagen.
The only way to win serious climate action 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 this mobilisation — which might just save us all.