The Climate in Emergency

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The Responses to the IPCC

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This is the fourth installment of a four-part series of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the report it is in the process of issuing. The first post in the series described the IPCC while the other two summarized the first, second, and third installments of the report (we still await the fourth installment, the Synthesis Report, due out later this year). This post addresses the media response to the report.

The world has not taken very kindly to the IPCC’s report, nor has its response, thus far, been particularly wise.

Generally, writers hand public figures have responded in one of three ways: by complaining that the report is alarmist and inaccurate; by complaining that the report is too conservative and does not raise sufficient alarm; and by accepting the report as true and complete and calling for a concerted effort to fight climate change.

First, let’s tackle the “deniers.”

Predictably, a number of commentators complained that the IPCC’s report is misleadingly alarmist. Let’s take this editorial in USA Today as an example.

The author’s basic argument is that not only is the IPCC wrong to raise the alarm, but that the experts actually know that the IPCC is wrong, and have said so, and that the IPCC continues to function only due to a kind of momentum. The article includes several short quotes to this effect (it is not clear that any of those quoted is a climate scientist) as well as a slightly longer excerpt from an editorial published in Nature.

However, the Nature article actually says something very close to the opposite of what the excerpt from it implies.

Joseph L. Bast, the author of the USA Today piece, quotes Nature as saying:

“Scientists cannot say with any certainty what rate of warming might be expected, or what effects humanity might want to prepare for, hedge against or avoid at all costs.”

He follows this quote up by a statement of his own that looks like a continuation of Nature’s critique but is not:

“Despite decades of research funded by taxpayers to the tune of billions of dollars, we are no more certain about the impact of man-made greenhouse gases than we were in 1990, or even in 1979 when the National Academy of Sciences estimated the effect of a doubling of carbon dioxide to be ‘near 3 degrees C with a probable error of plus or minus 1.5 degrees C.'”

Now, Bast’s statement, that “we are no more certain about the effect of carbon dioxide,” is true only in that we have been more or less certain about the effect of carbon dioxide on climate since 1896. Other aspects of the problem, like other greenhouse gasses, the role of aerosols, and various feedback loops, were less clear in 1979. Some, though not all, of those puzzles have since been solved.

Nature is correct that the rate of future warming is uncertain, but that doesn’t mean that scientists are totally clueless; a major source of uncertainty is that nobody knows what future greenhouse gas emissions will be. In any case, its editors’ main point is actually that the IPCC has done an excellent job, but that more reports on climate science as a whole aren’t necessary. They suggest that the IPCC produce smaller, more focused, and more rapidly compiled reports in the future.

Bast complains that the IPCC does not explain why “no warming has occurred for the past 15 years,” but in fact warming has occurred over this time frame. Warming did slow, for reasons the IPCC report did explain, but the so-called “pause” was an illusion born of creative misrepresentation of data.

He goes on to call on policy makers to listen to “other voices,” such as the NIPCC,  a group of “50-some scientists,” at least some of whom are associated with the Heartland Institute, a free-market advocacy group that receives significant funding from the oil industry.

For the record, 50 is a very small number of scientists for an international group on a major issues. The current  IPCC report has over 800 authors.

In any case, Bast himself is the president of the Heartland Institute.  Does a financial link to the oil industry mean a person can’t speak to global warming? Of course not. But the conflict of interest is certainly relevant.

I am not in a position to say that all high-level climate contrarians are in the employ of the oil industry or something similar. But at least a lot of them are. And while these critics typically present themselves as outsiders independent of Big Climate and its lucrative research grants, the fact of the matter is that there is no money in climate change.

The members of the IPCC serve without pay, most environmental scientists spent half their careers more or less begging for money, and the industries that are benefiting from increased awareness of climate change, like solar and wind power, have a fraction of the revenue and reach that traditional energy companies do. There is no Big Climate.

Any scientist who wants to earn money could earn more of it working in some more lucrative field. Any scientist who wanted prestige could win far more of it denying climate change, if there were some scientifically valid way to do it, than by sticking with the status quo–science lionizes successful iconoclasts.

So much for the contrarian critics.

However, the IPCC report also faces complaints that it does not warn enough. Glenn Scherer, of The Daily Climate, charges that the IPCC has had a consistent “conservative bias,” underestimating the threat in ways likely to influence policy. Although he does not name any sources (“scientists say” is generally the extent of attribution), Scherer, does offer several explanations for this bias, including the claim that the IPCC does too much to please climate deniers.

Scherer was writing in 2012, before any of the current report had actually been published. He was referring to earlier reports, on the occasion of the UN climate talks in Doha.

Now, he was correct that IPCC reports consistently underestimate global warming. Political pressure from climate deniers is possible, but it really isn’t necessary. These reports take a long time to write. By the time the full report is finally published, the information in it is already several years old. And since new climate news is almost always bad, consistent underestimation is to be expected.

That the IPCC kowtows to contrarians is just as unbelievable a charge as the idea that it is beholden to the monied establishment; if the Panel wished to be corrupt, wouldn’t they be better at it? If they wanted to avoid contrarian criticism, they clearly failed.

In any case, if the report does underestimate the amount of sea-level rise by a millimeter or two per year, or predicts an ice-free Arctic several decades farther down the road than reality, that doesn’t change the fact that climate change as described by the IPCC is a frightening, very serious problem that we should all do something about right away.

And yet, nobody has really done anything about it.

The third category of response to the report is approval, support, and a call to action. And that reaction is just as curious, because it is unclear whether many of the people who have it are actually doing anything to radically reduce emissions.

Despite all the efforts and raised awareness to the contrary, greenhouse gas emissions have not yet slowed.

We will see, over the next few years, whether the support of the IPCC is more than just talk.




Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

One thought on “The Responses to the IPCC

  1. Pingback: The IPCC, Again | The Climate Emergency

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