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.