The IPCC is far from ideal, and we knew this even before word got out that WG2 had made several minor mistakes. I’ve written about this before – here I discuss how the IPCC is naturally biased towards understating climate change: being too optimistic in its results. And here I discuss the difference in public attention when the IPCC understated central claims (such as sea level rise, Arctic sea ice melt, and emission scenarios) to when they overstated a detail that didn’t even make it into the technical summary – exactly how fast the Himalayan glaciers would melt.
Several British journalists have managed to construct several other “scandals” in the IPCC claims, which have little to no merit. Tim Lambert has spent the past few weeks investigating the legitimacy of these allegations, and one thing stands out above all others: facts do not matter in the way the media reports alleged IPCC mistakes or misconduct. One journalist in a minor British paper can make an erroneous claim that shouts “IPCC scandal”, and even after scientists have patiently explained, multiple times, why it is untrue, the claim is repeated in every major newspaper in the world. Consequently, even though virtually all of these “scandals” have to do with the WG2, the opinion pages use it as an excuse to vehemently question the idea that humans are causing the Earth to warm. This is obviously WG1 material, which is based on the laws of physics and decades of peer-reviewed science – but that doesn’t matter to the media, does it?
For people like us, who are so intent on scientific accuracy, it is incredibly frightening when accuracy becomes irrelevant in the sources that virtually everyone else relies on for climate change information. Even after factual errors that fundamentally change the message of the story are pointed out, no retraction is printed, and the authors are dealt no consequences. As scientists and concerned citizens, our greatest weapon is truth. But that can no longer be enough – not when our fourth estate drops its responsibility to truth, at least for this issue.
The IPCC was formed in the late 80s, and the relationship between climate science and the rest of the world has changed fundamentally since then. We have gained much more understanding of what climate change could mean for the world, so creating a document that encompasses absolutely everything we know is longer and more tedious. Governments fearful of climate change action have abused their powers of IPCC editing and review, as Stephen Schneider describes in his excellent book Science as a Contact Sport. Special interests muddled the lines of communication between scientists and the public, and when, due to the Internet, this communication became impossible to stop, the special interests decided to smear the reputations of scientists, scientific organizations, and science itself. The media and the public fell willingly to this muddling and smearing, so these special interests have gained far more influence than truth should allow them.
Is it necessary, or even desirable, to reform the structure of the IPCC to better suit its communication with the public? In terms of producing the most accurate science, I feel that it’s doing just fine the way it is, with the exception of needing some new WG2 review editors, and a delayed deadline for the WG2 and WG3 publications (instead of having all three reports released simultaneously).
Nature recently published recommendations from five diverse climatologists as to how to reform the IPCC. Subscription or payment is needed to read the full article, so I’ll give a quick summary here:
Mike Hulme wants to split the IPCC into three – a Global Science Panel that frequently publishes smaller reports about WG1 topics, five or ten Regional Evaluation Panels that report on region-specific WG2 topics, and a Policy Analysis Panel that frequently publishes examinations of different policy options.
Eduardo Zorita wants the IPCC to employ full-time scientists, instead of doing all the work on a volunteer basis.
Thomas Stocker wants the IPCC to stay the way it is, but to pay extra attention to following their self-imposed rules.
Jeff Price wants to select more lead authors to produce “short, rapidly prepared, peer-reviewed reports” instead of a set of massive ones every six years.
John Christy wants the IPCC to be removed from UN oversight and adopt an open, continually updating “Wikipedia” structure. I think a more accurate allusion to Christy’s proposition is the Encyclopedia of Earth, which has lead authors and a basic review system.
Personally, I agree with Jeff Price’s proposal. Mike Hulme’s seems to be very similar, and I like the way he separates and organizes the different panels. John Christy’s idea of a continually updating report intrigues me, but the more open approach to peer-review and a policy to “hear all sides” could easily be abused through artificial balance – equality over accuracy.
Any thoughts, further suggestions, background information to share? What changes, if any, should be made to the IPCC? And how can we possibly immunize the public to this incredible excuse to be misled?