by Judith Curry
Pilita Clark has written a thoughtful post at the Financial Times entitled What climate scientists talk about now, with subtitle “As the IPCC prepares to release its latest report, Pilita Clark meets some of the key scientists behind it.”
Since FT does not like cutting and pasting of its articles, my excerpts are very brief, I encourage you to read the entire article:
But there is one thing the final version must include when it is published next month, according to Sir Bob Watson, the British scientist and climate action advocate who chaired the IPCC for nearly six years up to 2002. “I think the current Working Group I report must address in detail the slowing down in the last 10 years,” he said, adding that although the past three decades were probably the warmest in 1,000 years, “there is also no question that it would appear that the rate of change in the last decade or so is definitely slower than the previous two decades.”
“The IPCC must address this because the climate deniers are linking on to this as a reason to say we’ve got all the science wrong. So I think one of the very most important issues is indeed for them to address this issue absolutely head on.”
This issue is so new that it was barely considered when the IPCC first met in 2009 to decide what would be in its next assessment and there is still no agreed name for it. Many scientists have started to call it the “hiatus” or “pause” and though it will be addressed in the final report, there is still no consensus on what has caused it. Some think it is happening because the oceans are absorbing more heat than once thought, especially at very great depths. Others think aerosols, tiny airborne particles from volcanic eruptions or industrial pollution that reflect sunlight away from the Earth could be having more of a cooling impact.
Dr Judith Curry, chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is one of several prominent US contrarians who have taken part in past reports but says she would not do so again. The process focuses too narrowly on human impact on the climate, she says, and requires a consensus about its conclusions that can lead to a tribal, group-thinking about the science. “This focus has essentially neglected natural climate variability, and has also neglected to assess potential benefits from a warmer climate,” she told the FT.
“Defending the consensus creates temptations to make illegitimate attacks on scientists whose views do not align with the consensus and to dismiss any disagreement as politically motivated ‘denialism’.”
Perhaps the greatest danger to the IPCC, however, is how cumbersome it has become to produce its assessments. The length of time between reports has always made some of its findings slightly outdated, but the process is also increasingly taxing for the volunteer scientists involved. Professor Jonathan Gregory, a leading expert on sea levels and an IPCC report veteran, had been working nonstop the day I saw him at Reading University. “It’s pretty near, I think, the limit of what one can do without it being a job,” he said. “It’s taken a colossal amount of my time this time.”Across the corridor, another IPCC author, Professor Rowan Sutton, was even blunter. “This has been a phenomenally protracted process,” he said. “I’m not sure I would do it again. I mean I don’t think I’ve got the time to do it again really. I do also think that the process needs to change to make it more manageable.”
Earlier this year, Renate Christ from the IPCC secretariat sent a letter to all the governments that commission the panel’s reports asking them to consider “should the IPCC continue to give priority to comprehensive assessment reports”, with smaller special reports.
This would be quite a change for a body that has played such a profound role in shaping the way we think about climate change. And it would make the latest IPCC assessment report even more distinct from its predecessors because, depending on what governments end up deciding, there is a chance that this one could be the last of its kind.
Walter Mead has some interesting comments on the FT article:
We disagree with the way Watson is framing the issue here. The problems that serious critics of the IPCC have had with its work isn’t about getting “all the science wrong.” To be sure, there were some flaws and errors of scientific fact in the last IPCC report, and there will certainly be errors (though hopefully fewer and less tendentious ones) in this report. But errors aside, the pattern seems even clearer now than it did a few years ago: the overall, long-term trend, notwithstanding with a more recent “hiatus” or “pause” as climate researchers are calling it, points to rising temperatures ahead. There are lots of ways this basic understanding still needs to be fleshed out, and it should be fleshed out in an environment of open, vigorous and contentious debate among scientists, without one side trying to throttle the others. The tendency in any establishment to suppress or marginalize dissent needs to be resisted. But as we’ve repeatedly said, it seems clear to us that the fundamental case for global warming is solid.
What isn’t solid, however, are all of the “fiddly bits.” How fast is warming happening? Will it speed up, and by how much? What the economic and environmental impacts be? What other factors besides anthropogenic ones might be contributing to the warming? What complex little mechanisms might slow the process down, or speed it up? And so on. It’s inherent in the nature of a system as complex as climate that these questions will be hard to pin down.
Because the uncertainty is about these “fiddly bits,” and not about the fundamentals, the worry is not about what the science says but about what the policy should be. We need a deep rethinking on the policy front. The problems of climate science need to be disaggregated. How do we help China and India move from coal to less carbon-intensive forms of energy use. How do we accelerate the US shift from coal to cleaner natural gas? How can we accelerate the shift from an industrial economy to an information economy in ways that allow the economy to grow and living standards to rise without making the environment worse off.
Environmental policy thinkers almost always begin with statist, top-down fixes, and quickly embrace crony capitalist ideas that involve subsidies for certain types of energy production, such as the ethanol abomination. Powerful economic lobbies then run with these ideas, perverting them until their environmental benefits take a back seat to their usefulness as tools of wealth capture.
This leaves environmentalists increasingly frustrated, increasingly panicked, and with increasingly little to show for it. More than anything else on the energy front right now, the world needs some out of the box thinking about energy policy.
Well I am holding my breath to see what the IPCC has to say about the pause. It was only a year ago that David Rose and I were widely chastised in the blogosphere for talking about the pause.
The article highlights two major problems with the IPCC.
The first is that that there is substantial diversity of opinions among recognized experts. The article highlights myself (arguing for greater attention to be paid to natural variability) and Peter Wadhams (who argues that the IPCC is not sufficiently alarmist about the melting of Arctic sea ice). By negotiating a consensus on these issues among a group of scientists that have probably been selected not to produce any ‘surprises’, a lot of science gets marginalized that is potentially important for scientific progress as well as in terms of producing a broader range of scenarios for decision makers to consider.
The second issue is the sheer burden that the IPCC places on participating individuals and the broader climate science community, not to mention the climate modeling centers. This is extremely onerous, and I am afraid there is overall diminishing returns on this investment of time and financial resources.
So what to do? I think that AR5 should be the last assessment report in the current ponderous three volume format. I strongly support more topical reports like the SREX. And I recommend dropping the consensus seeking approach.