IPCC Reform

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?

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7 thoughts on “IPCC Reform

  1. There’s also the proposal put forth by William Connolley, to wit:

    First of all, I think the WG I, II and II should be separated more. The WG I report should be done first. Then WG II and III should have their own timescales – perhaps running about a year or two behind WG I – and this makes sense because WG II and III need to use the output from WG I. It has been obvious to everyone for years that this would be sensible. WG II and III folk don’t like it because they wouldn’t get to ride on the WG I coattails the way they can now. Oh, and ditch the synthesis report, which is useless.

    He goes on into more detail, but that's the biggest change at the report level (the rest is mostly behind-the-scenes process changes, which is to be expected considering who's suggesting this). At the very least, the part I've quoted makes incredible sense to me (I'm hardly experienced enough to credibly weigh in on the other suggestions), and bits of it can be implemented to some of the others' suggestions (Hulme, Zorita, and Stocker) with ease. (Price, Christy, and to some extent Hulme already incorporate the biggest change, but I think WMC put it forward clearer).

    Of the five options presented in Nature, I'm most partial to Hulme's, but I can see Price's suggestion has clear merit. (If the two were combined, and as per WMC's suggestion, staggered such that the equivalent of WG1 was available to inform the replacements for WG2/3, I think I'd have a clear favorite. Make the review process very transparent – they already publish the comments and editorial responses, but they hardly call attention to them – to take it a step further. This may demand a change on reviewer anonymity, but that's an issue for another day.)

    As to the other question, I suspect that some folk will always mislead about the IPCC. The best we can hope for is figuring out a way to get around most of the pre-existing biases towards the place – especially its UN connections and (in the eyes of the public) its relative monolithic status (the Black Helicopter Brigade certainly stirs up enough right-wing rage over the former…). Independent assessment reports would probably do the trick for most of these (they're already being exploited by the inactivists – there's a "NIPCC" (Non-Governmental Independent Panel on Climate Change) inactivist think tank out there – and given the better PR on that side, this implies there's something to it). The real problem with that is that there's only so much free time available to the individual scientists, so each individual report would (presumably) be less reliable if they try for the same scope as the IPCC currently does, no matter how you split availability (even if some go full-time as Zorita suggested).

    Christy's suggestion is, interestingly, the most immune to this problem, but also (on the surface, at least) the most vulnerable to external tampering and cries of "balance". I'd be curious to see what WMC has to say about this – his connections to the IPCC and to Wikipedia's inner workings* make him uniquely positioned to speak on that proposal. (He's also had some choice words about Christy himself recently, though.)

    *If you thought, as many do (and I used to), that it’s an “enlightened anarchy” or similar emergent order, try doing an advanced search with “Articles” unchecked, but “meta” and “Wikipedia” checked. It’s informative, and can be downright hilarious.

  2. I would think that it should be necessary to have the IPCC reports (or parts of them) puplished more frequently. If not because of anything else, than because of the need for quick information and the constant flow of new information. We can’t be waiting for a new report for many years in these times of Internet and constant information flow. The IPCC should be able to respond quickly to critic. The present structure of IPCC doesn’t help in that direction.

    That said, it is disturbing to follow these kind of erroneous claims in some news. People who aren’t following the science from day to day, are easily confused by those kind of claims.

  3. I prefer Mike Hulme’s solution but none of these are going to matter if the talk show hosts (radio and TV) and conservative think tanks are allowed to lie about the science. Most folks do not have the time to separate the wheat from the chafe so they instinctively believe the spin from their favorite presenter.

    There needs to be a mass media vehicle that reports the science on a WEEKLY basis. Nothing new to report? Then keep hammering the foundation home. Essentially, we need a Realclimate-like TV channel hosted by a telegenic scientist ala the late Carl Sagan.

    I think in this country the President needs to, at a minimum, release a press statement to debunk the crazy talk when it happens and also to include climate science in his public appearances. Show your support, Mr. President, and then admonish those such as Inhofe who are spreading lies and going on witch hunts.

    At the very least there should be a Facebook page for climate science. I do not Facebook but it does seem to be the way to communicate nowadays.

  4. Kate, I saw this comment of yours at RC:

    I’m still in high school, but I would love to study physical climatology (especially radiative balance and attribution) after I graduate. So what I want to know is…..how do you stay sane as a climatologist?! I can handle terrifying predictions (I’ve gotten good at turning off the emotional part of my brain when necessary) but the smearing of scientists, scientific organizations, and science itself, as well as the abandonment of facts in the media that has fallen prey to repeating these smears, makes me really worry about what kind of career I’m getting myself in for.

    The career I chose for myself was medical research, including vaccine research. My research involved a lot of animal modeling (primarily rodents), and there is a lot of opposition and smearing of my profession going on. To testify to Gavin’s point, I was not touched personally by the attacks on scientists, and I had the support of the people who are most important to me – friends and family.

    Scientists like Gavin have chosen to take a more public role in the defense of the science, but you rarely if ever see the names of people who work under him dragged through the mud.

    My advice to you is to follow your dream, and don’t worry what people you never will meet think of scientists who are pursuing the truth. Don’t let idiots scare you away; by the time you finish your studies we’ll be another decade into the warming and the public will be seeking out good scientists. That’s the thing about science – the truth will always win out.

  5. Kate,

    I talk about you all of the time as a shining example of hope as we move toward 2100. You probably do not realize how much you have inspired me and I am sure many others. As Deech56 said above and as Bono of U2 says,

    “Don’t let the bastards grind you down!”

    BTW, I am taking my own advice and will be signing up for a Facebook account and creating a climate-related group. When it is ready I will post the group indentifier here.

    [Thank you for the kind words. This is a difficult subject to be immersed in, but nonetheless rewarding. -Kate]

  6. OK. I just joined Facebook (God, help me) and created a group called Global Warming Fact of the Day.

    I will post a small factoid each day related to climate change that is geared toward the general public. From what I gather, anybody who joins the group will get this daily factoid automatically on their Facebook page. I like the concept because people will get information without having to go find it. I started with three factoids to wet appetites.

    [That looks great. I’ll bookmark the page and recommend it to my friends. -Kate]

  7. Kate, you are in high school?? I am “flabbergasted”. You are very polished and professional in tone. You are on an amazing trajectory too. Just remember that courage does not mean lacking fear (which is sometimes the only sensible emotion) but doing what you have to do in spite of the fear. So have courage.

    But better yet, try not to be afraid of people who try to bend truth to fit their propaganda objectives and make personal attacks rather than scientific sense. In some cases they may even believe their own nonsense. (I am always amazed when I have to conclude that about someone making irrational claims.) In which case some sympathy toward the propagandist is in order, but not much.
    You are doing the right thing and I can only hope my two little boys will develop into intelligent and committed “youth” as you apparently are. Best wishes to you. RLG

    [Thanks for the kind words, Russ. Yes, I am finishing up my last year of high school. I plan to go on to study lots of math and some physics so I can specialize into physical climatology later in my education. As well as a researcher, I want to be an effective science communicator, like Weaver and Schneider have been on this issue. After nearly a year of blogging, I’m learning to laugh at denialist rhetoric rather than worry about whether or not people actually believe it. It is the supportive community of readers and commenters like you who keep me on a positive note. -Kate]

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