A Sober Defence of the IPCC

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is at work on its Fifth Assessment Report (5AR), which is due out next year, and is expected to tell us that warming is continuing, and that the future for humanity is dire. There are lots of people, myself included, who think that the IPCC over-eggs its reports, so there has been much interest in what purports to be a leaked version of the 5AR draft report, the contents of which seem to have some mixed messages.

I don’t intend to get into that today, but rather to set out exactly what the IPCC is and does, and in a sense defend it from some of the charges that are regularly laid against it. In doing that I will also make clear that it is not the body that we, the world’s citizens, actually need to help us deal with ‘climate change’, let alone with our regular climate problems.

The IPCC is an international grandchild of international children, whose parent is the United Nations. It was established in 1988 under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization for the purpose of assessing ‘the scientific, technical and socioeconomic information relevant for the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change.’ Note that last phrase. The focus of the IPCC is explicitly on changes to the climate brought about by humans and their activity.

The IPCC does not carry out new research, and it doesn’t itself monitor climate-related data. It bases its assessments mainly on published and peer reviewed scientific technical literature, the purpose of these assessments being to inform international policy and negotiations on climate-related issues. In doing all this it contributed to and has been hugely justified by the United National Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a treaty adopted in Rio de Janeiro twenty years ago, whose objective is to ‘stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’.

The parties to the treaty meet annually at conventions, each of which is called a ‘Conference of the Parties’. The most famous, because so much was expected of it and so little actually happened, was held in Copenhagen in 2009, and last, just completed, was at Doha in Qatar, which passed almost un-noticed by the media.

The treaty entered into force in 1994. It neither sets binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries, nor provides enforcement mechanisms.  Instead, the treaty provides a framework for negotiating specific ‘protocols’, which might set binding limits on greenhouse gases. It led to the Kyoto Protocol, which Kevin Rudd signed with much flourish in 2007 after becoming our Prime Minister. Kyoto is about to lapse. As of 2011, 194 countries were signatories to the treaty, and Australia is one of them.

Now that is the setting in which the IPCC operates. You can see that the IPCC is not obliged to look at anything other than the effects of human activity, and it would not therefore be surprising if those who lead its activities, and write its reports, are worried about that human activity and want us to end or at least moderate the activities they think are responsible for climate change. Nor is it particularly surprising that they think, and tell us, that human activity is far and away the main cause of any climate change.

The problem for the sceptical among us is that this does seem a rather wrongheaded way of going about looking at the causes of climate change. It would have been so much better had the original remit been to understand and report on, not the ‘risk of human-induced climate change’, but ‘the causes of climate change’. Human history gives us abundant examples of serious changes to climate over at least the past three thousand years that led to massive effects on humanity, both for good and ill. Wouldn’t you think that would be the real target?

That the IPCC was given the human-activity target was the consequence of a fear among some scientists that the rise in carbon dioxide emissions was causing an equivalent rise in global temperature, and they could show that this seemed to be the case for the last fifteen years. If it kept going like this, temperature would rise and rise and catastrophically affect human society. That fear generated the the establishment of the IPCC and led to the UNFCCC. From 1998, the year of a massive ENSO-caused high temperature spike, temperatures have flattened out, though carbon dioxide continues to be added to the atmosphere. Indeed, one estimate is that about a third of all the greenhouse gas emissions that have occurred since the industrial revolution have taken place while temperatures have been stable.

What we really need, and we don’t get from the IPCC reports, or from the mountainous collection of articles that start with the assumption that human activity is responsible for global warming, is an account of all the forces that drive climate change. You can try to infer the reality from what is actually published, but it seems to me the wrong way to go about the task. It doesn’t help matters that for governments, which are the real parties to and sponsors of the current system, the IPCC seems to be the authoritative body.

As I have explained, it can’t be, because it is attacking only a part of the question, and worse, it assumes that its part is the whole. We need something else. I don’t know what it is, and perhaps the only likely change to the status quo will be a continuation of stable temperatures, or more worryingly, a cooling, which will in time suggest to governments that they don’t need to take the IPCC so seriously. In the meantime, we in Australia need to deal effectively with with droughts, floods and fires, our three great climate problems, and stabilising greenhouse gas emissions over the globe is a hopeless way of doing this.

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • […] yesterday’s post I set out what I think is the real situation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that […]

  • Peter51 says:

    Don, you criticise the IPCC as well as the United Nations as a suitable body to present the research on climate change, global warming, or whatever other name we use to present this research. Yet, I find it strange that you are not able to suggest some alternative body that may be able to do it better. After all this is simply a body that presents the work done by the thousands of scientists across many disciplines working in this area in a report, or as we have had a series of reports.

    I do find it strange that one of your criticisms is that the research work is too narrow by its focus only on the human influence on our global climate. Yet I would suggest that is not true. The only reason the research can determine the human influence/drivers affecting the climate globally is because it is research both of the natural drivers of climate change as well as that proportion of it that is driven by human activities on our environment.

    What I find strange as well is that somebody with such obvious academic qualifications and experience puts your arguments against the science on climate change in such a broad unsubstantiated way. The reason I checked up on this website of yours and commented was because of your story in the Australian (19/01/2013) criticizing the ABC for what you claim as being its pro-global warming bias. And again this was done in a very broad unsubstantiated way, which I found surprising for somebody from your academic background.

    Oh, I have one other comment in regards to the statement by Karl Popper at the top of this page under its heading. I would have thought “The Growth of Knowledge depends entirely on Disagreement” is incomplete. Disagreement in itself does not lead to the growth of knowledge. In fact I would suggest it can often lead to the opposite. It can often be used to hinder the growth of knowledge and instead be a vehicle of misinformation by those wishing to maintain their position of wealth, power and authority. Disagreement, especially within the field of science, must be based within the scientific process and based on the known body of scientific knowledge at the time. Disagreement, for disagreement sake, is just noise in the wind and has no meaning.

    • Don Aitkin says:


      I have written elsewhere about the first point, but briefly: the UNFCCC definition of climate change seems wrong to me, and it should be widened to consider all the factors that influence climate change, not just the human ones. Then the IPCC would have a more sensible, and less political mandate.

      I would have to disagree with your second point. I know of no papers that consider human influences in the context of natural variability. Perhaps you could suggest one or two. The IPCC reports rule out natural variability, in effect by arguing that that they can only find CO2 as the culprit. There is no true consideration of what we know about natural variability. And Table 1-11 of WG1 in AR4 suggests that we don’t know all that much anyway.

      The story in the Australia is an abbreviated version of a longer piece I wrote for the Sydney Institute Quarterly. I wasn’t aware that it had been edited or published (and wasn’t asked). You should read the full version, which will appear online, I am told, in February.

      ‘Unsubstantiated’ What I do is to ask questions, and offer the answers that I am given what analysis I can bring forward. If you want to follow what I do, go back to the website and consult the writings.

      ‘Disagreement’ Without disagreement there is no way forward from the suggestion that the Sun or Moon rule everything, or that we have always done things this way. Your extension is correct as far as it goes, but that was not my point. A line is only a line, not the whole truth.

  • Slasha says:

    Don. how are ya bruzz..my name is morty…i run a slashing contract
    business here in byron bay- am currently sub-contracting to Baulderstone
    for the highway upgrade tintenbar to ewingsdale..i aslo happen to hold a
    BSc and an MA from UNSW. Just been reading yr piece in the aussie with
    keen interest…i believed in AGW for about 4 months when i first heard
    about it when i was living in London in 1992-seemed like a good idea at
    the time ay!

    Obviously i listen to a lot of radio, and there’s
    nothing like the abc to send you spare in a confined air con space. You
    mentioned the lack of examples of the some of the abc editorial
    amateurism/hypocrisy. Well heres a cracka. John Doyle has been doing
    summer slots in the mornings on RN. The other day he was running the
    standard twice a morning “we’re all gonna die from climate change”
    story. (you can if your lucky sometimes get 5 or 6 mentions a day in
    programs as diverse from the religion report to drama programs!!). then a
    few minutes later he ran a very interesting story about the supposed
    theory behind what caused the dinosaur prints at Winton in QLD. The
    thrust of the story was that these authors had come up with an entirely
    new explanation of what caused the placing of the prints. And i thought
    to myself bugger me how in Hades could the editorial or production team
    not see the blatant stupidity of running the two story’s together and
    not realising that one was propaganda being paraded as science and the
    other was well just good science..i witness this anomaly allllll the
    time on the ABC and it does my head in…Then usually i simply switch
    over to ZZZ 100.9 FM and listen to Nicky Menage or Walking Gangnam
    style and calm down ay!!

    cheers bud keep up the fight…

    rob mort

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