Thursday, 17 June 2010

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true! (H. J. Simpson)

At least three members of 4CMR will be lead authors for the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC. This is something to be proud of – the IPCC has managed to coordinate the key experts in order to present and evaluate the wide range of research findings on climate science, for which it is a Nobel Prize recipient. The quality of its reports make it a crucial resource for climate researchers, a point of reference for decision makers, and an independent organisation through which climate change has become an issue of global importance.

And yet, there seem to be suggestions that the IPCC model – by which I mean a panel comprising many of the world’s leading experts that review all relevant material with a view to consider the state of the field – has been discredited. Newspaper headlines about “serious errors in Himalayan glacier projections” based on poorly substantiated estimates or the “withholding and manipulation of data” said to be derived from hacked email content, have certainly had a negative impact on the profile of the IPCC.

Indeed, Robert Watson, chair of the IPCC between1997- 2002, was emphatic that IPCC tackle its blunders or lose all credibility, and other leading climate scientists, writing in Nature in February this year, have suggested the need to reform the way the IPCC functions, ranging from replacing the IPCC with three types of assessment and evaluation panels, increasing the number and speed of its publications, replacing the volunteer organisation with a permanently staffed agency or a Wikipedia-style open debate.

But do these criticisms and suggestions that there is a need for change really show that the IPCC model itself needs to be rethought? The complexity of coordinating and reviewing the state of knowledge of climate science is daunting and the balance between the different ways of framing such data is an immense challenge, but creating the reports – and the reporting process itself – have been crucial in enabling the interdependencies between different elements studied by the different climate sciences to be identified. The reports are useful as a resource, but also as a boundary object i.e. as a way of bringing together people from different fields by enabling a shared understanding to be formed around a specific text or artefact. But this is itself a tension within the IPCC model.

The problem is that there are many debates occurring simultaneously over the same territory, often with the same elements, but related to different epistemologies and irreconcilable assumptions. The IPCC reports are presented (in the media, at least) as a “last word” on climate change, but while a “last word” might be possible for the state of mainstream science of climate change, there is no comparable consensus or perspective that can enable a complete understanding of what climate change means for individuals or social groups. As Mike Hulme – IPCC coordinating lead author and East Anglia University email hackee – argues in his book Why we Disagree about Climate Change, climate science does not and cannot provide facts that speak for themselves, let alone tell us what the problem is and what the solution must be. Instead, climate change becomes appropriated by different groups to promote their own causes, and reflect their own assumptions and narratives – from how we govern and how we gain knowledge, to how we perceive and communicate an understanding of concepts such as nature, risk and fear.

Sophisticated debates about the meaning of climate change and the subtleties about methods and methodologies are also a part of the climate change story, and it is right they are debated, and that prominent members of the IPCC are engaged with these debates. There can be no “last word” on certainty on the meaning of climate change.

There are, though, organisations and individuals who claim to be certain – lobby organisations, conspiracy theorists and those who dogmatically restate a view irrespective of how many times it has been cogently debunked (“climate change is a myth – its all down to sunspots!”). It is perhaps ironic that those who claim such certainty criticise the IPCC for overstating the certainty of climate science – though on this point they are perhaps correct in the sense that the IPCC is not getting the following message across: climate science produces results of different degrees of certainty, typically providing evidence for one outcome “on balance of probabilities” and never certainty. The lack of certainty derived from climate science is not the problem, it is the challenge; hiding uncertainty or claiming to have a comprehensive explanation of climate change would be the problem.

There are, of course, those who perceive uncertainty as a weakness, or suggest that any errors in a report must imply that the process in which the report was developed is tainted by incompetence or fraud or both, but overstating the certainty or not taking responsibility for errors, is a losing strategy.

Those most vociferous in their criticism of the IPCC and its failure (and there are half a million websites that link the two search terms in Google) seem to be those most certain that climate change is not happening, those for whom “evidence” is unnecessary and debate is fine as long as it is about which of their views is just not being heard. Claiming to be certain and infallible and having a very simple message might convince some people, especially if it’s a “business as usual” message, and opponents ,who advocate tough lifestyle change, have some uncertainty and admit to having made mistakes. The role of the IPCC is not to counter the sceptics’ certainty with an opposing certainty, and the IPCC should not allow this impression to be given.

In March this year an open letter, signed by Scientists based in the USA, concluded that:

“the significance of IPCC errors has been greatly exaggerated by many sensationalist accounts, but that is no reason to avoid implementing procedures to make the assessment process even better”

This seems to be a fair assessment and the correct response to way the IPCC model be reconsidered. Expectations should be high; mistakes, failures, compromises and uncertainty should be explained and discussed, and debate encouraged. Being certain has its place, but not in understanding the complexities and meanings of the climate.

I think Bertrand Russell expressed the issue clearly and succinctly:

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts”

In this regard the IPCC is more sinned against than sinner.

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