THE VINE SEPTEMBER 7, 2010
Does the world's leading climate-science body need to be revamped? That's basically been the consensus position among observers over the past week (see, e.g., the Times). It all started when the Amsterdam-based InterAcademy Council released its independent review of the IPCC. Prior to this, few people had ever heard of the InterAcademy Council—it appears to be an obscure organization that releases grand scientific pronouncements every now and again. On the other hand, most everyone's read by now that the IPCC garbled some dates related to the melting of Himalayan glaciers, so it was inevitable that this review would cause a ruckus.
All told, nothing in the review suggests that the IPCC's periodic assessments of the state of climate science are filled with errors. In fact, the executive summary says quite the opposite: "The Committee concludes that the IPCC assessment process has been successful overall and has served society well." The IPCC is guilty of clumsy phrasing here and there, but that seems to be it. And yet, the InterAcademy Council goes on to insist that the IPCC undertake some structural and procedural reforms if it wants to stay relevant—hiring more full-time paid staff, creating a better process for responding to review comments, being clearer on probabilistic language… (See here for a tidy little list.)
All worthy ideas, no doubt. But is any of this really necessary for the IPCC to stay relevant? That seems dubious. William Connolley, a former climate modeler with the British Antarctic Survey, has a cogent take on this question:
No number of IPCC reports is going to convince people who don't want to know, that the science is good and, yes, to use that term that everyone hates, settled—at least in the basics. You can—if you hold your nose—visit any number of septic blog sites and find people arguing passionately for positions totally divorced from scientific knowledge. These people don't argue against what is in the IPCC reports, because they have never read them or anything vaguely based on them. Producing another bigger fatter more up to date version will not sway them. That is fine really—such people aren't the target audience. But they are voters, and politicians can't be too bold while their constituents believe twaddle.
Some people still seem to hold the belief that the *next* IPCC report—which will be even more unequivocal on the-temperature-is-going-up-and-it-is-our-fault—will change peoples mind. I'm very dubious about that. For that kind of thing, we have all the evidence that is required (disclaimers: I'm only really speaking about [physical climate science] stuff, because it is the only thing i have a clue about, and I'm not saying we should shut down all the physical climate change research. There are plenty of exciting and interesting things to discover. But they won't change the big picture). This is, I think (but can't be bothered to look up) the [Roger Pielke Jr.] viewpoint: that doing something about global warming is a political problem, not a scientific one (in a way that it wasn't in, say, 1990, when the scientific field was far more open).
The idea that the IPCC's findings would gain more public acceptance if only it had a full-time executive is a little quaint. There will always be skeptics and deniers trashing the IPCC—they don't believe what's in the report because they don't want to believe what's in it, not because they're genuinely troubled about procedural issues. And, while it will be useful to have continued IPCC reviews on things like sea-level rise (so that we know what to prepare for), at this point, policymakers shouldn't need new information in order to act. So, sure, let's have structural reforms 'til the walruses come home, but there's no sense pretending the fate of climate science—or climate policy—hinges on this.
(Flickr photo credit: Yale_Rebecca)