Reforming the IPCC

August 31, 2010

in Geek stuff, Politics, Rants, Science, The environment, Writing

Alternative title: What to do when everybody ignores you?

In the wake of University of East Anglia email scandal, there has been yet another review of the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This one was chaired by Harold Shapiro, a Princeton University professor, and concluded that “[t]he U.N. climate panel should only make predictions when it has solid evidence and should avoid policy advocacy.”

The IPCC has certainly made some mistakes: issuing some untrue statements, and evaluating some evidence imperfectly. That being said, the details they got wrong were largely of a nitpicky character. The core claims of the IPCC reports – that climate change is real, caused by humans, and dangerous – remain supremely justified. The trouble is, governments aren’t willing to take action on anything like the appropriate scale.

The situation is akin to a doctor giving a patient a diagnosis of cancer, after which the patient decides that he will try to cut down on his consumption of sugary drinks. That might improve the patient’s health a bit, but it is not an adequate response to the problem described. At that point, it would be sensible for the doctor to engage in a bit of ‘policy advocacy’ and stress how the proposed solution is dangerously inadequate.

It can be argued that the IPCC works best when it presents the bare facts and leaves others to make policy decisions. The trouble is, people don’t take the considered opinions of this huge group of scientists sufficiently seriously. They are happy to let crackpots tell them that there is no problem or that no action needs to be taken. While scientists should not be saying: “Here is what your government’s climate change policy should be” they should definitely be saying: “Here are the plausible consequences of the policy you are pursuing now, and they don’t match with the outcomes you say you want to achieve (like avoiding over 2°C of temperature increase)”. They could also very legitimately say: “If you want to avoid handing a transformed world over to future generations, here is the minimum that must be done”. James Hansen accomplishes this task rather well:

Today we are faced with the need to achieve rapid reductions in global fossil fuel emissions and to nearly phase out fossil fuel emissions by the middle of the century. Most governments are saying that they recognize these imperatives. And they say that they will meet these objectives with a Kyoto-like approach. Ladies and gentleman, your governments are lying through their teeth. You may wish to use softer language, but the truth is that they know that their planned approach will not come anywhere near achieving the intended global objectives. Moreover, they are now taking actions that, if we do not stop them, will lock in guaranteed failure to achieve the targets that they have nominally accepted.

Scientists don’t lose their integrity when they present scientific information in a way that policy-makers and citizens can understand. Indeed, it can be argued that they show a lack of integrity when they hide behind technical language that keeps people from grasping the implications of science.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

. August 31, 2010 at 10:44 am

IPCC report card

The Inter-Academy Council report on the processes and governance of the IPCC is now available. It appears mostly sensible and has a lot of useful things to say about improving IPCC processes – from suggesting a new Executive to be able to speak for IPCC in-between reports, a new communications strategy, better consistency among working groups and ideas for how to reduce the burden on lead authors in responding to rapidly increasing review comments.
As the report itself notes, the process leading to each of the previous IPCC reports has been informed from issues that arose in previous assessments, and that will obviously also be true for the upcoming fifth Assessment report (AR5). The suggestions made here will mostly strengthen the credibility of the next IPCC, particularly working groups 2 and 3, though whether it will make the conclusions less contentious is unclear. Judging from the contrarian spin some are putting on this report, the answer is likely to be no.

. August 31, 2010 at 10:55 am

Clearing up the climate
Aug 30th 2010, 20:22 by The Economist online

“The report finds problems with the way the IPCC handles reviews of its work, the degree to which it shows fairness when considering areas that are disputed, and the way it communicates the certainty, or lack of it, wherewith it speaks. It calls for new rules on conflict of interest (or more accurately, it calls for rules—at the moment the panel has none), a new full-time leadership position and a new executive committee. Perhaps most strikingly, the report can also be read as a call for Mr Pachauri to resign, though neither Mr Pachauri nor Mr Shapiro have characterised it in quite that way.

In a further move towards transparency, the report says the IPCC should start clearly defining the criteria by which it selects authors and others, including the chair and the new executive secretary, and documenting the steps it takes to ensure that all relevant scientific points of view are being represented or at least addressed. It should also make sure that regional assessments benefit from global expertise, not just that of those living in the regions in question. This will go some way to meeting the worries of those who see clear signs of “groupthink” in the panel’s workings, though some of those critics might still press for the entire process of author selection to be made transparent.

Mr Pachauri and his colleagues welcomed the report at a press conference, but what actions it will lead to remain to be seen. The authors for the next assessment report have already been chosen. To deselect them and go through the process again would be time consuming and erode the goodwill on which the unremunerated process depends. Other reforms, though, could be set in train more easily, if the plenary wants to do so. The IPCC is a unique and remarkable institution; the governments that make it up will soon have the opportunity to improve it, if they can agree about just how much reform they want, and who they want to lead it.”

R.K. August 31, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Governments everywhere are big fans of meaningless targets, which they have no plan in place to meet. Certainly, informed people need to keep pointing out the huge gap between what the science says is required to keep warming below 2°C and what governments are actually doing.

At the same time, it is important for the IPCC to retain credibility. One important way of doing so is by thoughtfully responding to criticism, and making changes where appropriate. As such, reforms are appropriate and productive (though any admission that change could be useful will be used by deniers to argue that the IPCC is hopelessly incompetent or corrupt).

mek September 1, 2010 at 12:30 am

The phrase ” should avoid policy advocacy.” is so problematic and generalized I don’t know where to begin. Isn’t the determination of a carbon emissions limit itself advocating a policy of not emitting more carbon? Basically, governments want to totally lobotomize an already ineffectual organization?

Milan September 1, 2010 at 8:19 am

All told, I think the IPCC has fulfilled its mandate well.

That said, I agree to some extent with both mek and R.K. Stripping the IPCC of roles isn’t a sensible thing to do; undertaking substantive reforms to problematic elements of their work is definitely a good idea.

. September 3, 2010 at 9:56 am

The Inter-Academy Council report on the processes and governance of the IPCC is now available. It appears mostly sensible and has a lot of useful things to say about improving IPCC processes – from suggesting a new Executive to be able to speak for IPCC in-between reports, a new communications strategy, better consistency among working groups and ideas for how to reduce the burden on lead authors in responding to rapidly increasing review comments.

As the report itself notes, the process leading to each of the previous IPCC reports has been informed from issues that arose in previous assessments, and that will obviously also be true for the upcoming fifth Assessment report (AR5). The suggestions made here will mostly strengthen the credibility of the next IPCC, particularly working groups 2 and 3, though whether it will make the conclusions less contentious is unclear. Judging from the contrarian spin some are putting on this report, the answer is likely to be no.”

. October 14, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Climate panel agrees ‘milestone’ reforms, defers others

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News, Busan

“n its recent review of the IPCC, the InterAcademy Council (IAC) – an umbrella group for the world’s science academies – highlighted a case in the 2007 assessment where studies projecting rapidly declining crop yields in Africa were given more weight than they merited, in the absence of supporting evidence.

The revised guidance emphasises that in future, authors must assess both the quality of research available and uncertainties within that research.

It urges authors to be careful of “group-think”, but maintains that it “may be appropriate to describe findings for which the evidence and understanding are overwhelming as statements of fact without using uncertainty qualifiers”.

Enhanced guidance on the use of “grey literature” – material not published in peer-reviewed scientific journals – has also been drawn up, and will be finalised by chairs of the IPCC’s working groups in the coming months.

Procedures for correcting errors should they arise were also approved – which means that the most serious error in the 2007 report, on the projected melting date for Himalayan glaciers, can be formally repaired.

“Some aspects of that error have been corrected and are now incorporated in the text,” said Chris Field from the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University in California, who co-chairs the IPCC working group on climate impacts. “

. December 6, 2012 at 1:43 pm

How the IPCC Underestimated Climate Change

Here are just eight examples of where the IPCC missed predictions

At the heart of all IPCC projections are “emission scenarios:” low-, mid-, and high-range estimates for future carbon emissions. From these “what if” estimates flow projections for temperature, sea-rise, and more.

Projection: In 2001, the IPCC offered a range of emissions trends, from a best-case scenario of just 8 billion tons of carbon released each year to a worst-case scenario of 30 billion tons produced annually by 2100.

Reality: In 2011, Global emissions totaled 31.6 billion tons of carbon, according to the International Energy Agency, exceeding IPCC’s worst-case scenario 88 years ahead of schedule.

Projection: In 1995, IPCC projected “little change in the extent of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets… over the next 50-100 years.” In 2007 IPCC embraced a drastic revision: “New data… show[s] that losses from the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica have very likely contributed to sea level rise over 1993 to 2003.”

Reality: Today, ice loss in Greenland and Antarctica is trending at least 100 years ahead of projections compared to IPCC’s first three reports.

Why the miss? “After 2001, we began to realize there were complex dynamics at work – ice cracks, lubrication and sliding of ice sheets,” that were melting ice sheets quicker, said IPCC scientist Kevin Trenberth. New feedbacks unknown to past IPCC authors have also been found. A 2012 study, for example, showed that the reflectivity of Greenland’s ice sheet is decreasing, causing ice to absorb more heat, likely escalating melting.

. September 25, 2013 at 11:00 pm

U.N. climate change panel to release summary of latest science Friday http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/25/world/climate-change-report/index.html

. September 30, 2013 at 6:09 pm

Without jumping up and down on the desks of their computer terminals, this forum of scientists has done about as much as they can do. With this report, they have proven humankind’s impact on the climate, and confidently projected dire consequences should world governments fail to act immediately.

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/09/we-are-terrifyingly-close-to-the-climates-point-of-no-return/280076/

. October 6, 2013 at 12:19 am

But denial is only part of the problem. More significant is the behaviour of powerful people who claim to accept the evidence but keep stoking the fires. This week the former Irish president Mary Robinson added her voice to a call that some of us have been making for years: the only effective means of preventing climate breakdown is to leave fossil fuels in the ground(9,10). Press any minister on this matter in private and, in one way or another, they will concede the point. Yet no government will act on it.

. January 2, 2014 at 9:48 pm

Scientists have been turning up the volume on abstract figures: The IPCC is 95% certain, 97% of peer reviewed papers agree global warming is man-made, 100% of National Academies of Science. But these facts bounce off most people like a foreign language.

The response from political leaders has mostly been to reiterate their generic injunctions even more emphatically: “we should act on climate change” becomes “the time for action is now!” Alas, these words sound hollow because they rarely speak to our competing commitments to fuel prices, energy security and economic growth that militate against such action.

The response from business leaders has been to amplify the credible business case for reducing emissions. However, while green growth is good for everyone’s morale, even the most exemplary sustainable businesses are quiet on the inconvenient distinction between absolute and relative reductions in emissions. What matters for climate change is not reducing carbon on a unit by unit basis, but reducing emissions overall. Halving emissions to double the size of your business is much better than business as usual, but it doesn’t really help to deal with climate change.

So what are the alternatives to turning up the volume? Today the RSA publishes a report: A New Agenda on Climate Change: facing up to stealth denial and winding down on fossil fuels. There are four main points to our argument.

First, and most politically, we need to recognise that anthropogenic climate change is driven primarily by the economic logic of global fossil fuel extraction, and only to a lesser extent by the social practices and infrastructure that shape national emissions.

Second, climate change badly needs reframing. Thus far it has been subsumed by a broader environmentalism, and is often conflated with a more general concern for sustainability. The problem is ecological in nature, but it is driven by economic activity and has significant implications for public health, immigration, industrial policy, pensions, financial stability and energy security. The collective climate challenge could become much more meaningful if we could start thinking and talking about it at this more inclusive level.

The third challenge is to face up to ‘stealth denial’, which we believe applies to about two thirds of the British population (63.9%). A nationally representative RSA/Yougov survey of over 2,000 people in May 2013 revealed that those who accept the facts appear to disavow the connection with their emotions, personal agency and daily lifestyle.

We characterise ‘stealth denial’ in terms of those who accept the reality of man-made climate change but who agree with at least one of the following narratives (which are not mutually exclusive). Emotional Denial: “I don’t feel uneasy about climate change”; Personal Denial: “My daily actions are not part of the climate change problem”; Practical Denial: “There is nothing I can do personally that will have any significant effect on limiting climate change”

Of course, the attempt to measure complex psychological traits and processes through a relatively crude survey instrument raises a host of methodological questions, but it felt important and timely to provide empirical reference points for a notion that is already true to our experience, and each form of denial is cross-validated with other elements in the survey.

Facing up to pervasive stealth denial sheds fresh light on a range of climate-related issues, and helps to explain why we appear to persistently ignore or underestimate rebound effects on energy efficiency savings. There are many different kinds of rebound effects, but they mostly stem from the neglected empirical fact, highlighted by Duncan Clark, that ‘energy begets energy’, and that energy supply in one place often creates demand elsewhere.

At a planetary level we are therefore caught in dissonance and doublethink, simultaneously trying to minimise emissions at a national level, while maximising fossil fuel production. Energy efficiency remains an important part of the transition story to renewable energy, but believing it has a direct and significant impact on emissions begins to look like false consciousness.

The fourth and most practical challenge is to clarify the call to act on climate change.

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