Taking time to think about the controversies now hitting “climate change”

It is worth quoting IPCC errors: facts and spin, the latest post on Real Climate.

Currently, a few errors –and supposed errors– in the last IPCC report (“AR4″) are making the media rounds – together with a lot of distortion and professional spin by parties interested in discrediting climate science.  Time for us to sort the wheat from the chaff: which of these putative errors are real, and which not? And what does it all mean, for the IPCC in particular, and for climate science more broadly?

Let’s start with a few basic facts about the IPCC.  The IPCC is not, as many people seem to think, a large organization. In fact, it has only 10 full-time staff in its secretariat at the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, plus a few staff in four technical support units that help the chairs of the three IPCC working groups and the national greenhouse gas inventories group. The actual work of the IPCC is done by unpaid volunteers – thousands of scientists at universities and research institutes around the world who contribute as authors or reviewers to the completion of the IPCC reports. A large fraction of the relevant scientific community is thus involved in the effort.  The three working groups are:

Working Group 1 (WG1), which deals with the physical climate science basis, as assessed by the climatologists, including several of the Realclimate authors.

Working Group 2 (WG2), which deals with impacts of climate change on society and ecosystems, as assessed by social scientists, ecologists, etc.

Working Group 3 (WG3) , which deals with mitigation options for limiting global warming, as assessed by energy experts, economists, etc…

To those familiar with the science and the IPCC’s work, the current media discussion is in large part simply absurd and surreal. Journalists who have never even peeked into the IPCC report are now outraged that one wrong number appears on page 493 of Volume 2. We’ve met TV teams coming to film a report on the IPCC reports’ errors, who were astonished when they held one of the heavy volumes in hand, having never even seen it. They told us frankly that they had no way to make their own judgment; they could only report what they were being told about it. And there are well-organized lobby forces with proper PR skills that make sure these journalists are being told the “right” story. That explains why some media stories about what is supposedly said in the IPCC reports can easily be falsified simply by opening the report and reading. Unfortunately, as a broad-based volunteer effort with only minimal organizational structure the IPCC is not in a good position to rapidly counter misinformation.

One near-universal meme of the media stories on the Himalaya mistake was that this was “one of the most central predictions of the IPCC” – apparently in order to make the error look more serious than it was.  However, this prediction does not appear in any of the IPCC Summaries for Policy Makers, nor in the Synthesis Report (which at least partly explains why it went unnoticed for years). None of the media reports that we saw properly explained that Volume 1 (which is where projections of physical climate changes belong) has an extensive and entirely valid discussion of glacier loss…

Overall then, the IPCC assessment reports reflect the state of scientific knowledge very well. There have been a few isolated errors, and these have been acknowledged and corrected. What is seriously amiss is something else: the public perception of the IPCC, and of climate science in general, has been massively distorted by the recent media storm. All of these various “gates” – Climategate, Amazongate, Seagate, Africagate, etc., do not represent scandals of the IPCC or of climate science. Rather, they are the embarrassing battle-cries of a media scandal, in which a few journalists have misled the public with grossly overblown or entirely fabricated pseudogates, and many others have naively and willingly followed along without seeing through the scam. It is not up to us as climate scientists to clear up this mess – it is up to the media world itself to put this right again, e.g. by publishing proper analysis pieces like the one of Tim Holmes and by issuing formal corrections of their mistaken reporting. We will follow with great interest whether the media world has the professional and moral integrity to correct its own errors…

A long extract, I admit, but I urge you to read the whole thing.

See also Deltoid over the past week, especially the stories about the debate with Lord Monckton.

Related:  New Internationalist Copenhagen issue.

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