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.