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This item was posted on February 10, 2010, and it was categorized as Climate Change, Climate change policy, Global Warming, IPCC.
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With Elisabeth Rosenthal’s page-one story in the New York Times yesterday, it’s possible that the American press may finally start to examine the controversies that have erupted over the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its head, Rajendra Pachauri. One can only hope.

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:

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This thing has 13 Comments

  1. Posted February 10, 2010 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    One criticism I have for Ms Rosenthal is about her ability to write a story about conflicts of interest for Dr Pachauri without mentioning the fact that the scientist behind the 2035 fiasco has been an employee of Pachauri’s TERI for a while now, and apparently never said a thing about the overused and mistaken Himalayan glacier final melting date.

    As for the IPCC, it wasn’t created “to provide policy-relevant assessments of the science of climate change”. Its principles say “The role of the IPCC is to assess [...] the [...] information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation”.

    Trouble is, the information can be “relevant to understanding” the science, the impacts, the options and still not be the bare minimum needed to make an informed policy decision. That’s what IMHO forced the gaffe-prone time-constrained alarmed IPCC report authors into padding their output with non-scientific dubious remarks and news pieces. That is destroying now the scientific side without having been of much use on the policy action side either.

    This situation will continue as long as the IPCC will be seen as an instrument for policymakers more than an independent assessment process for science. And the AR5 risks to be seen as a purely political document.


    As for your other question…”is the lack of substantive policy action on climate change the result of too little policy-relevant science?” Perhaps it’s just a matter of realizing the world we live in is not just what science can describe of it. It would be far better if a new IPCC were to concentrate on science and science alone, and an explicitly-policy-partisan UN body set up to discuss in the open and without any cry of “the science is settled!”, the interactions of the science of climate with geopolitics, ethics, etc etc.

  2. John
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    The Inter-Planetary Clown College has outlived whatever usefulness it had.

  3. Posted February 10, 2010 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    This is an excellent point, Tom. Better science and models are important, but they by themselves won’t shut the skeptics, won’t convince the Senate to pass a climate bill, won’t produce a treaty this year in Mexico City.

    I’m not sure why the IPCC has become a lightning rod, or why the Climategate email story has such legs. I suspect it’s mostly a US/UK phenomenon: On the world stage in Copenhagen this wasn’t an issue.

    But DailyClimate.org has tried to look at a post-IPCC world, or at least a post-Fourth Assessment world. Todd Neff, a top-shelf journalist and a former Scripps fellow at CU wrote a two part series for us that we published almost a year ago, before any of the recent science news broke. I think it’s held up pretty good. The second part speaks most directly to your question. http://bit.ly/8YAKe3

  4. gene stevens
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Douglas Fischer:

    “I’m not sure why the IPCC has become a lightning rod…”

    Here are but a few reasons…

    TeriGate and PepsiHondaTeriGate and TeriProtectedForestGate
    WaveEnergyGate, new DissertationGates and EcoterrorReferenceGates

    And..this just in…



    Happy reading…and don’t forget to go through all 1073 climategate emails, too.

  5. Michael Tjoelker
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    In my own humble opinion, the reason why the IPCC has become a lightning rod is because of its political, and not scientific, orientation, and the reason the Climategate email story has such legs is because it appeared to validate what skeptics, such as myself, have suspected for a long time– the scientists involved have not been completely straight with us. This is much more than a US/UK story. The debate rages in Australia, the Chinese government is now close to the skeptic position itself, and India has snubbed their nose at the IPCC and announced that they are going to establish their own independent climate panel. The reason Climategate has legs is that there is now serious doubt, serious doubt, among objective people, that AGW actually exists.

  6. Michael Tracey
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Tom, read your interesting post. The making of policy, and the proposing of legislation based on that policy, presupposes a rational world where the larger good, the collective interest
    is recognized and supported. We obviously don’t live in that political or societal environment. It is also the case that the skeptics, as with health care, have been extremely successful in selling their case. It is clear for example that in the UK the majority of Conservative MPs either no longer buy the idea of climate change or believe that dealing with it would be economically damaging. And they will be forming the next government in the UK – absent something extraordinary happening. However, my own view is the responsibility finally lies with the public which maintains a kind of willful ignorance, is easily influenced by simplicities and is utterly defined by the values of a consuming society and that wants nothing that might “threaten” that. I’m absolutely convinced that if a law were passed that said to Mr, Mrs and Ms America, “OK, you have a choice, you can keep your iPhone or your vote but you can’t have both” a not inconsiderable number of people would keep the phone.

  7. Adela Kostea,Chicago
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    Dear Sir,

    You should be ashamed of yourself for propagating an alarmist theory which has no base in reality whatsoever.
    Because of irresponsible people like you, some children don`t want to do their home work or even go to school, because “what is the point, we are all going to die soon from global warming”!
    Millions of children allover the world from kindergarden to highschools and universities have been brain washed by your shameless propaganda,to the point that they feel their very lives are putting the planet in danger.
    But people have already waken up and see this whole thing for what it is, meaning a total fraud, an international effort of power and money grabbing based on the marxist concept of “wealth redistribution”.
    On April 28 1975 Time magazine had on its front cover the title GLOBAL COOLING!!, with an article, signed by climate scientists, concluding that the Earth is cooling to the point it will all be covered in ice and all living creatures will die of freezing.
    After a few years, when it obviously turned out that such a theory was nonsense, the so called climate scientists, in their quest for government grants, have invented a new fantasy, that of global warming……the world is warming due to us, human beings and we are all going to die unless we give up all of our liberties to one big world government which is going to regulate every single aspect of our lives, how many times to flush our toilets, what kind of cars to drive, where, for what reason and how far, how many children to have , what kind of food to eat, etc.
    In 1992 Al Gore said that “the time for a debate is over, the science is settled”…..
    This obviously is a lie for the time for a debate is never over and the science is far from being settled.
    Science my dear sir, does not work as a democracy , meaning that in science, the majority does not rule as it does in a democracy.
    If 1000 scientists have a debate and 999 of them agree on the subject, but only one of them disagree, it may very well turn out , as it has so many times in history, that the lone scientist is the only one that is right.
    I could give you many examples, such as that of Charles Darwin.
    When he first presented his theory of the evolution of species, all the scientists laughed at him and ridiculed him…in the end he was right and they were wrong.
    When Galileo said the Earth is spinning, the rest of the scientists accused him of heresy…but it turned out he was right and they were all wrong.
    After 15 years of advancing a false theory based on fraudulent data, the “scientists” noticed that the planet is not warming, but is actually cooling, so they changed the name of their theory yet again from global warming to “Climate Change”, just in case, to have all possibilities covered.
    Soon, my dear sir the whole thing will be unequivocally exposed for a premeditated fraud.
    People like yourself will then be held responsible for the enormous psychological, social and financial damage that your actions have caused.
    Just like when a doctor who gives out the wrong diagnosis and causes harm to the patient as a result, just like in such a case the doctor has the license suspended and has to pay damages or even go to prison, people like you will soon face the consequences of the lies you have imposed on the world for so many years.
    There must be parents out there whose children have suffered mental trauma because of this great scam.
    All these parents should get together and get a pit bull of a lawyer to file a class action law suit in a civil court and take the global warming crooks to the cleaners.

  8. Posted February 10, 2010 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Adela: I have spent more than two decades of my life reporting on this subject. I may be wrong. But I have worked very hard to understand this issue. I have also worked very hard to keep things civil and constructive here at CEJournal. So I take exception to your characterization of me as “irresponsible,” a purveyor of “shameless propaganda,” and a “liar.”

    If you had actually taken the time to read this blog instead of simply allowing your knee to jerk angrily in response to something you disagreed with, you would have seen that I have written quite a bit about all scientific knowledge being provisional and subject to change. And, in fact, nothing would please me more than to be wrong about climate change. But sir, I suspect that no amount of evidence will ever convince you because your mind seems firmly locked against anything that goes against your preconceived notions about the world.

  9. Posted February 10, 2010 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    I’m a relative newcomer to the “climate wars” – having stumbled across them a mere two weeks before Climategate. In the intervening months, I have learned quite a lot; but I have yet to discover any empirical evidence to substantiate the basic claim i.e. that human generated C02 is the primary cause of “climate change” aka “global warming” (ergo, according to the “non-prescriptive” exhortations of the IPCC, we “must act now” by filling the coffers of the carbon traders.)

    Paul Dennis (a welcome breath of fresh air from the University of East Anglia), in response to a recent essay by Jerome Ravetz (father of “post-normal science”, which the Climategate crew appear to have been practicing) has written:

    “Because of the gaps in our knowledge the approach to post normal science is different to the Kuhnian approach. Ravetz suggests that there is a wide stakeholder community that should be included in peer review, the so called extended peer community. This peer community can bring their own ‘local knowledge’ or ‘extended facts’ to the debate. It strikes me that this is another way of trying to seek concensus, rather than knowledge, truth and understanding. In many ways it strikes me as another description of what Feynmann would call ‘cargo cult science’.

    “[...] The theory of CO2 induced catastrophic global warming is just that: an idea that cannot be experimentally falsified. In the absence of any direct ability to test the idea we must apply common sense or Occam’s razor. For example the principle of uniformitarianism suggests that if CO2 is the dominant forcing component in the climate system then there should be abundant evidence of temperatures scaling with CO2 levels. As a first order test we can look at the Eemian intergalcial about 125,000 years ago. During this period CO2 levels were about 280ppm (100ppm below present day levels) and temperatures several degrees warmer than present. Here we see immediately that temperature is not a simple function of atmospheric CO2 levels and we have to look at other components in the climate system to explain the Eemian climate.

    “Where does this leave us. I suggest that post normal science is a social construct without meaning. It fits the current zeitgeist in which humanity is vulnerable to a multiplicity of disasters: epidemics, nuclear obliteration, global warming etc. The characterization of Kuhnian, and the scientific method as having no regard for probability, error, uncertainty and only being applicable to well controlled experimental systems in the laboratory is wrong. Finally, the only way we can fully understand the climate system is by using what we all know as the scientific method.”


    As for the IPCC, consider the words of Joseph Alcamo – a long-time IPCC insider and (along with Mike Hulme), initiator of a virtual chain letter drumming up “consensus” for support of a pre-Kyoto “Statement of European Climate Scientists on Actions to Protect Global Climate”.

    At the Bali Meeting of the IPCC in October 2009, Alcamo [now the "Chief Scientist" of the UNEP, a parent organization of the IPCC] included the following in his opening address to the plenary:

    “[...] as policymakers and the public begin to grasp the multi-billion dollar price tag for mitigating and adapting to climate change, we should expect a sharper questioning of the science behind climate policy.”


    It is also worth noting that the much vaunted “rigour” and “strict procedures” of the IPCC are very much open to question. For an example of this ethically-challenged “review” process in action, you might want to take a look at:


  10. David Becker, Ph.D.
    Posted February 11, 2010 at 4:25 am | Permalink

    As a serious, working scientist, it is pretty clear to me that there are significant problems with the current state of the science behind AGW, or even, possibly GW. It appears that the original data might be severely corrupted in any number of ways (UHI effects, sampling bias, and utterly improper homogenization.) I really find it hard to believe that data of the sort that is collected worldwide can be properly represented by any sort of homogenization. In addition, to put any faith in computer models is simply silly. I would never do my science the way that it has been done for climatology. I believe a whole new science, new and utterly different modeling techniques, and more careful data collection is required. A new breed of climatologists have to start over and do it right.

  11. Samantha Harvey
    Posted February 11, 2010 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    Dr. Becker: What do you mean by “doing it right?” When looking at a slow-moving process with multiple variables, computer modeling seems like the only way to plug in uncertainties and look at a variety of scenarios. The results are never 100 percent fool-proof, but over time they’ve shown us a general trend. What other (and better) kinds of modeling techniques could the new breed of climatologists use?

    And Tom, thanks for the post! A question: What do you mean by “policy-relevant” science? When it comes to global climate and anthropogenic influences, isn’t it all relevant? Also, do you think NOAA’s new Climate Service can have any more political or public influence than the IPCC?

  12. West Houston
    Posted February 11, 2010 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    Best I can figure, the IPCC outlived its usefulness on the day it was created.

    Now we find that it is corrupt from its leader on down.

    We see the “science” supporting its claims disintegrating.

    Fact is, the UN has also outlived its usefulness.

    West Houston

  13. Ossa
    Posted February 12, 2010 at 3:31 am | Permalink

    This UK determination to push on at call costs despite gaping questions about the science of climate change is puzzling. It has been noted that in Canada the UK high commission’s media office in Ottawa proved ineffective in selling the story to the press so the Brown government is now packaging climate change as a security issue. Hahaha. It would be funny if it weren’t sad.

This thing has 5 Trackbacks

  1. Posted February 10, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    [...] Tom Yulsman over at CEJ poses a different set of questions related to the Times story, most provocatively, Has the IPCC outlived [...]

  2. Posted February 11, 2010 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    [...] Och en kommentar till Elisabeth Rosenthal’s “sensationella” förstasidesartikel i NY Times. [...]

  3. Posted February 12, 2010 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    [...] mit in Erwägung gezogen wurde.Inmitten der Zahlenreparaturen und endlosen anderen Skandale – wo nun sogar die härtesten Klimaenthusiasten zugeben, dass die Zeit des IPCC abgelaufen ist – macht sich jetzt hoffnungsloser Doppelsprech breit.Die [...]

  4. Posted February 13, 2010 at 12:40 am | Permalink

    [...] the figure fixing and the endless scandals that now even have hardened warming enthusiasts admitting that the IPCC has run it’s course, desperation doublespeak has kicked [...]

  5. Posted April 10, 2010 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    [...] the figure fixing and the endless scandals that now even have hardened warming enthusiasts admitting that the IPCC has run it’s course, desperation doublespeak has kicked [...]

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