A Sober Critique of the IPCC

In yesterday’s post I set out what I think is the real situation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that it was set up to explore only that aspect of climate change that is caused by human activity. Climate change must be more than that, or we would not have known wheat being grown in Libya two millennia ago for the million-strong city of Rome, or wine being produced in northern England in the Middle Ages, or the Thames in London being frozen during the Little Ice Age.

At the same time, we know that clearing forests and turning them into grasslands changes the micro-climate of the area, and that smoke or soot in the air can increase air temperature. We humans can have an effect on our climate. It is not an either/or matter, but a question of ‘how much’? Having started with the presumption that ‘human-induced climate change’ is the real problem, the IPCC does have a natural tendency to see the answer to the ‘how much’ question as ‘an awful lot’. And all its Assessment Reports have been of that kind.

It is important to keep in mind that the IPCC is not a scientific body but an intergovernmental one. It is governments which fund the Panel, and governments which appoint its delegates. It does not carry out research, but considers how recent research bears on its central remit. Research that seems to support the view that human beings are having a negative effect on their environment is grist for its mill, but research that suggests that there are greater forces at work seems to be put to one side.

If I were teaching about  this issue in a social science methodology class, I would be suggesting that students concentrate on the whole before focussing on a part. That is, let us first discover what is the sum of the forces acting on our world to produce the kind of climate we have, and then look to see how human activity serves to affect those forces. These forces include the path of our planet as it moves around the sun, the ways in which the oceans and the atmosphere interact, clouds and their formation and dispersion, the role of the sun, and so on.

While we do seem to understand a good deal about these forces it is also true that there is a lot we do not yet understand. For those of us who live in eastern Australia, for example, our climate is much affected by the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which is currently in neutral territory. If it was positive we would be having a hot dry summer, and if it were negative, as it was in the past two years, we would be having a cool and wet summer. We know the effects that the ENSO pattern produces, but we do not know what causes it. Nor can we predict what will happen to it in the future. And ENSO is very much more important to all of us than is the possible rise of the ‘global temperature anomaly’, the central climatic measuring stick for the IPCC.

Dissatisfaction with the IPCC round the world grew rapidly in late 2009, generated in part by the release of emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit that suggested too many climate scientists close to the IPCC were less than open-minded in their work for that body. The reaction  produced the appointment of the InterAcademy Council to conduct a review of the IPCC’s procedures and operations. The IAC is another international body, representative of science academies around the world. The Australian Academy of Science is a member.

The IAC told the IPCC to smarten up and get its house in order. It did not, however, even mention that the IPCC ought to widen its purview of climate to look seriously at the matter of natural variability. Perhaps it thought the IPCCs remit was a given. In any case, the IPCC has taken precious little notice of the advice it was given, and the draft 5AR that is being studied appears to have the same ultimate message: we must control greenhouse gas emissions, or they will lead to destruction of human society. And those writing the report seem to be just as confident as their predecessors.

I can only conclude as I did yesterday that we the world’s citizens need something better than this. Indians know that monsoons vary in their timing and force. We know that floods, droughts and fires are standard visitations on our land. Americans know that destructive tornadoes have been a factor in their country since at least the arrival of European settlers. On the face of it, these are natural events which we do not fully understand, and it is not helpful to have them somehow related to carbon dioxide emissions.

The IPCC is not responsible for the scary talk and religious fervour with which the doomsters talk of the need for a ‘carbon-free’ future. But its failure to look more broadly at climate, its focus on carbon dioxide as the real villain in all of this, and its closed-shop mentality  all make it not just useless in helping us all understand our climate and how we affect it, but cause it to get in the way of real progress. Alas, like all bureaucracies, it will be extraordinarily hard to dismantle.


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  • Pmci says:

    Actually the IAC report was a rather brutal critique of the IPCC.

    Although it was a report only into the methodologies used by the IPCC it recommended the replacement (ie dismissal) of the IPCC chairman and the current lead authors.

    Among other things it also recommended the inclusion of scientists with contrary views in drafting the next SAR and noted the failure of the current SAR to demonstrate the process by which a number of its conclusions were reached.

    No wonder its recommendations were never implemented and the report vanished into oblivion.

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