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The IPCC Gets Sick of Science

The August 4 issue of the New York Times features a rather illuminating article  by Andrew Revkin – the Times’ climate reporter – on sentiment within the ranks of the IPCC as that organization begins work on its upcoming 2014 report.  Revkin reports that the IPCC’s scientists are frustrated that the world’s governments – even those that are led by politicians who habitually give end-is-near speeches about global warming – are not taking the sorts of policy actions the organization thinks are necessary to head-off global catastrophe.   Hence, a growing number of scientists want the IPCC to be more explicit and prescriptive with regards to public policy, less inhibited when discussing scientific issues where a great deal of uncertainty exists, more concerned with best practices pertaining to public risk management, and more politically sensitive about the issues that are examined at-length in the upcoming report.

In other words, Revkin reports that the IPCC wants to spend less time on science in their next report than they have in past reports and more time on issues for which it has no relevant expertise or comparative advantage.  Of course, Revkin doesn’t put it quite that way, but that’s the unmistakable implication of what he reports.

Consider these complaints one at a time.

The fact that governments are not fundamentally transforming society to address climate change is not necessarily a sign that either the public or their governmental representatives are not listening closely enough to the IPCC.  Public resources are, after all, rather limited.  There is only so much time, energy, and money to address real, imagined, or potential public harms.  Hence, worries about climate change have to compete with worries about AIDS, economic development, terrorism, unfunded public health care and retirement programs, the global economic recession, and numerous other things.  Scientists who specialize in climate change have no comparative advantage in sorting out which of these worries are more important than others.  In fact, there is very good reason to think that climate change is less important than more than a dozen other issues affecting human wellbeing even if one buys the scientific arguments found in past IPCC reports. 

Moreover, crafting “good” public policy (defined as policies that maximize the spread between benefits and costs, broadly understood) is a difficult undertaking.  Political scientists and economists are trained in this sort of thing.  Scientists are not.

 The worry that scientists aren’t saying enough about things they are unsure about is an odd complaint.  “Knowing what you are talking about,” after all, is generally thought to be a prerequisite for intelligent conversation.  Stanford climatologist Stephen Schneider, however, evidently believes that “knowing what you are talking about” needs to be defined relatively elastically.  “If you say nothing until you have high confidence and solid evidence,” he tells Revkin, “you’re failing society.”  Are we to believe, then, that saying things about which one has low confidence and weak evidence is doing society a favor?

Even assuming the IPCC’s assessment of climate-related risks is correct, what exactly can scientists tell us about the kind and degree of public risks that are acceptable and those that are not?  Nothing.  Risks – public and private – are omnipresent in life.  Risk preferences are subjective.  Scientists have no better or worse preferences in that regard than anyone else.  They can inform public decision making by ensuring that our understanding of the risks at issue is as accurate, but they can’t tell us as scientists what we ought to do with that information.

Finally, concentrating attention on those issues that public policy analysts think are important is almost certainly less “honest” than a report that concentrates attention on those issues that the IPCC’s scientists think are important.  An IPCC that sees itself more as a staff-arm of member governments than an arbiter of the published scientific literature is an IPCC that defines itself more by its political mission than its scientific mission.         

This isn’t just bad policy; this is bad science.  As Roger Pielke Jr. points out, “Scientists seeking political victories may diminish the constructive role that scientific expertise can play in the policy process.”  By way of analogy, if the public comes to believe that the referee has definite preferences regarding the game’s outcome, the public is going to trust the refs a lot less than might otherwise be the case.  The IPCC’s proposed remedy for a world that pays little real attention to their reports may well lead to even less public attention in the future.  

Whether that’s good or bad depends, of course, on your point of view.

11 comments

1 Neil craig { 08.10.09 at 8:12 am }

The record of political scientists or economists on getting costs & benefits right isn’t very good either, hence the present state of the world.

Perhaps accountants, who have not spent their lives being paid by government should have a go.

2 Andrew { 08.10.09 at 8:52 am }

Of course the best quote in the article is not that of any of the alarmed scientists who are frustrated that they aren’t being “listened to” in their eyes-but rather it comes from a decidedly un-alarmed scientist, John Christy:

“It just feels like the I.P.C.C. has gone from being a broker of science to a gatekeeper”

Indeed. One expects that activist bloggers may play gatekeeper on their little alarm promoting echo chambers, but something is very very wrong when they play gatekeepers in writing “objective” science assessments. One gets the sense that the situation is desperate in one way if not the other…rather than needing to act now in order to avoid catastrophe it now seems that action is needed now so that it can be taken before it becomes clear it is unnecessary…Not to mention unhelpful.

3 Andrew { 08.10.09 at 8:56 am }

By the way, with regard to the “expertise” of the IPCC, they actually have been predominantly specialists in non climate fields in the first place, including a rather large number of economists. So strictly speaking they may actually shifting to questions they are more qualified to address-except of course that being an economist doesn’t mean you understand economics, and additionally, they will start out with the assumption that the conclusions they reached outside their area of expertise earlier are correct (which is ludicrous, frankly).

4 Peter B { 08.10.09 at 10:00 am }

Isn’t it time for the un-alarmed who have standing to call for IPCC to be sunset by its government sponsors? Who wants another round of IPCC science that would be out-dated at publication, even if its reports were comprehensive and unbiased? I’d prefer to see the national academies and private think tanks do their climate work in their areas of special expertise and interest, subject to scrutiny by other scientists and internet analysts. Then government leaders would have a choice of who to listen to and likely would listen to those whose forecasts proved the most accurate and who dealt with the real risks to their region. The era of government climate science monopoly needs to be ended!

5 Richard W. Fulmer { 08.10.09 at 11:14 am }

I think that this push toward politics is the continuation of a long-standing trend. The summary reports have historically soft-pedaled the qualifications, uncertainties, and cautionary language in the scientific reports. This tendency has driven a self-selection as “just-the-facts” scientists increasingly avoid the IPCC, leaving behind a team that is more and more dominated by people with political agendas. The result has been, and will continue to be, an organization increasingly skewed toward activism at the expense of objective science.

6 Ouroboros Rex { 08.10.09 at 12:24 pm }

If you have a problem with political scientists weighing, in, why are you quoting political scientist Roger Pielke, Jr.?

You have no evidence that the IPCC does not have, or cannot obtain, experts on the new topics as it needs them.

7 Richard S Courtney { 08.10.09 at 4:44 pm }

Friends:

The IPCC is a political organisation and has been since it was founded. It is the InterGOVERNMENTal Panel on Climate Change. Governments are the most political of bodies, and their appointees are appointed for political and not scientific reasons.

From its start the IPCC was tasked with providing reports at 5-year intervals. These reports were to summarise the findings of climate science pertaining to the anthropogenic (i.e. man-made) contribution to global warming and were to be in a form suitable for use by “policymakers” (i.e. politicians).

It is a profound error to think the IPCC reports are independent of political input and bias. The authors of the reports are scientists appointed by governments (i.e. politicians), and each statement in each IPCC report is agreed by representatives of governments prior to publication. Many of these representatives are also scientists (because scientists can understand the scientific statements in the reports) but they are officially tasked to act as representatives of their governments when approving the IPCC reports prior to publication.

The most recent IPCC report (AR4) says its authors are at least 90% certain that recent global warming is mostly caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases rather than natural variations. Tens of thousands of scientists do not agree with this conclusion. Importantly, the IPCC reports provide evaluation of published scientific literature, and the Non-Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) report is based on evaluation of the same literature but concludes that recent observed global climate changes are entirely the result of natural causes. The NIPCC report can be downloaded from
http://www.heartland.org/publications/NIPCC%20report

I was involved in production of the recent IPCC report and the NIPCC report. A balanced opinion on the issue of anthropogenic contribution to global warming can be obtained by reading both these reports.

Richard

8 Vernon A. Cornell { 08.10.09 at 10:01 pm }

All….I have attempted to read, and understand, the 4th Assesment. It is very, very difficult. I cannot find the data that points, with certainty, to CO2 as the ‘culprit.
On the other hand, NIPCC’s two works, 2008 and now June 2009, are quite clear. As is the 12-page report in the work by Oregon go http://www.petitionproject.org.
At this stage I would rather believe the added 100ppm to atmos CO2 is benefitial… Vernon

9 Derek D { 08.11.09 at 1:10 pm }

An InterGOVERNMENTal panel on Climate Change is formed before any science SUPPORTING that there actually IS climate change is presented. Not surprisingly, without any direct experimentation, this panel cocludes that there is climate change AND it is caused by man. Then every GOVERNMENT agency receiving science funding comes out and agrees with this assessment. Then the government allocates some hugely disproportionate amount of its scientific research funding to studying the inevitable effects of climate change, again before any science has been done proving it’s existence. Not surprisingly they all arrive at their predetermined ‘conclusions’. Now the same panel asserts that DOING the science is less important than issuing alarmist warnings about what we would have to do if the science were actually done and somehow proven to be true.

Are you holocaust-denying-flat-earth-birthers trying to say that there is something wrong with this? If the same government that signs my welfare check says its on the up and up then I believe them…Change!

10 Ken Maize { 08.14.09 at 10:01 pm }

A splendid post by Jerry Taylor. Scientists are subject to the same hubris as the rest of us, only they buttress their personal and political views with reference to advanced degrees and meaningless research.
I spent a few years at NIH and I learned about the difference between research and meaningful research. I also learned about the importance of peer-reviewed research and the problems of peer-reviewed research (the “circle of friends” problem).

11 Global Warming Hoax Weekly Round-Up, Aug.14th 2009 « The Daily Bayonet { 10.06.10 at 11:11 am }

[...] to time all the time, is considering that perhaps pesky science isn’t persuading people.  So they might have to go political for the 2014 report.  Hahahaha – thump.  Yes, I just laughed my ass [...]

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