by Tony Brown
Posts in the thread on uncertainty guidance for the IPCC have raised a basic question regarding the credibility of the IPCC as the world’s foremost source of information on climate, and hence its future relevance.
Unfortunately, the various post-Climategate discussions of the problem to date have framed the issue as one of the poor behavior or practices of a few over-enthusiastic individuals, thus skirting the question of whether or not the underlying problem could lie with the consensus process of the IPCC, itself.
Some critics have used the word “corrupt” in conjunction with this process, in suggesting that it has corrupted climate science by introducing bias to support a preconceived agenda or premise.
But regardless whether or not “corrupt” is too strong a word to use to describe this process, there is no question that in many people’s eyes the IPCC has suffered a massive loss of credibility and trust by the general public as a result of the many disclosures following the Climategate leaks. In turn this has followed through into greater scepticism by some parts of the media and created a greater awareness of the role and importance of the IPCC.
A report by the influential Times of London in February 2010 cited an opinion poll, which found that the “proportion of the population that believes that climate change is an established fact and largely man-made has fallen from 41 per cent in November to 26 per cent.”
IPCC supporters have been quick to close ranks in support of IPCC in spite of the revelations, in some cases couching the perceived problem as one of poor communication skills, or the inherent difficulty of explaining something as complex as climate science to policy makers looking for black and white answers or to a generally scientifically illiterate public unable to grasp the complexities.
These rationalizations miss the point, namely that there has been a loss of trust in IPCC in recent years and that their credibility and relevance has been called into question.
While the IPCC and its supporters had hoped that the independent inquiries following Climategate would re-establish public trust, this was not the case, as many saw these investigations as attempts at whitewashing rather than comprehensive, objective or diligent investigations.
As a result the questions arise:
- Can the IPCC regain the trust of the general public?
- If not, can the IPCC still maintain its relevance after this loss of credibility?
- Would climate science be better off if it were divorced from the IPCC?
- Should the IPCC, as is, be disbanded and replaced with something else and, if so, with what and how?
Nature solicited the views of 5 past IPCC contributors in an article entitled “IPCC: Cherish, Tweak or Scrap?” (unfortunately behind paywall). The article was discussed at Pielke Jr’s site andinsights from Mike Hulme were described at YaleClimateMediaForum.
Some introspection is required in order to arrive at suggested answers to these questions.
It has been said that trust is the hardest thing to gain and once it is lost it can never be regained. Roger Pielke, Jr. has raised the question of loss of trust, suggesting that IPCC needs major changes if it hopes to survive. This was written a short time after Climategate and the subsequent revelations of sloppy work and exaggerations in IPCC reports were revealed, but there have been no major changes to IPCC since then.
It is generally known that one can only change if one wants to do so. And it appears that the IPCC does not want to make the major changes that would be required in the hope of regaining the lost trust. If IPCC is unable or unwilling to make the drastic changes required in order to regain public trust, where does this leave us?
It seems very unlikely (to use IPCC parlance) that IPCC can maintain its relevance after this loss of credibility, so it is very likely that climate science would be better off if it were divorced from the IPCC, as painful as such a divorce would be.
In other words, the climate science community itself should look for post-IPCC alternates to re-establish the general public trust in climate science.
These could involve setting up some sort of a group of scientists as an objective review board for all climate studies, which (like IPCC in the past) issues periodic summary reports on the findings.
However, there must be one key difference: the group must not be a politically based or influenced committee under the auspices of the United Nations like IPCC, but rather a small group of theoretical scientists, applied scientists, engineers and economists, who are active in a related field and represent a variety of different viewpoints in the on-going scientific debate regarding our climate.
The group must also have the brief not to restrict itself to the investigation of human-induced climate change, as was the case for IPCC, but to include naturally induced changes as well.
And there needs to be an oversight committee of genuinely independent auditors who will ensure that there is no consensus process in place, which could lead to the introduction of bias, as was the case with IPCC.
Will IPCC disband and self-destruct automatically? Probably not without some shouting.
But it can be made redundant first by defunding it and second by setting up this alternate group which will have more credibility than the organisation it would replace.
This will be no easy task. But it will be a necessary one, if we want to rehabilitate climate science and turn it into a useful, neutral tool with which to investigate the causes for our ever changing climate.