Today, journalists and climate experts are busy debating Rosenthal’s story in email listserves and other venues. Some are taking her to task for not quoting any climate scientists in the story (and some are hopping mad about it), others are arguing that the story had no business being placed on page one, and still others are criticizing her for over-using one expert: Roger Pielke, Jr., my colleague here at the University of Colorado, who has been highly critical of how his own research was characterized in the most recent IPCC report.
[Update: Matthew Nisbet has an interesting take on coverage of the IPCC and "Climategate" controversies in the press. "Public accountability," he writes in his Framing Science blog, "is one of the central themes of political coverage generally and part of how news organizations define their function relative to the government and those in power." So while Rosenthal's story was biased, it is a different kind of bias than that claimed by partisans: ". . . it is simply journalists' orientation to pay attention to and report on possible wrong-doing by those in positions of influence and to follow perceived conflict."]
Whatever its particular flaws may be, I think Rosenthal’s piece was necessary. (And as I said in an earlier post, an examination of the IPCC controversy in the American press has been overdue.) But it missed an opportunity to address a bigger, more important issue:
Has the IPCC outlived its usefulness?
It was created to provide policy-relevant assessments of the science of climate change so that policy makers could make informed decisions. Clearly there is a need for continuing monitoring of how the climate is changing, and assessments of what science is telling us about the climate. For example, where might tipping points lie?; and how long might deglaciation take? (If it takes 50 years, we’d be screwed; if 500 years maybe not.) Moreover, there is a pressing need for synthesis of information produced by such divergent forms of science as atmospheric physics, paleoclimatology, biogeochemistry and other fields.
But is the lack of substantive policy action on climate change the result of too little policy-relevant science? That would be a good question to explore in a story. My guess is that many experts would say that the lack of policy action is mostly the result of geopolitics and the ethical divide between developing and developed nations. Will yet more policy-relevant science produced by the IPCC solve those problems?
A story on these issues would also examine whether the IPCC should be replaced by something else. Has it become too big, too unwieldy, and, most important, has it outlived its usefulness? If so, what should replace it? What do scientists and other experts who work on the IPCC have to say about this? And what do other experts have to say?
UPDATE: Andy Revkin emailed me with links to some stories and posts of his that are relevant to the questions I raise here: