Even those living under the oft-referenced proverbial rock would find it difficult these days to avoid the tempest of public opinion, news media attention, and political rhetoric swirling around the climate change issue. On the heels of Al Gore’s turn as an Oscar winner, and the vast swell of public awareness about the perils of climate change that preceded it, the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Working Group I was unleashed upon political pundits and the pseudo-scientists of the popular media.
In part II of our Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change FAQ, we are given abundant fodder for a critical analysis of the functioning and output of the IPCC, as we stand on the sidelines of the dizzying frenzy of activity surrounding all things climate change. Given the deluge of noble mandates and far-reaching policy proposals emanating in ever-increasing numbers from that devious hub of sycophants and climbers that we call Ottawa, we must (being the ever-so-enlightened socio-scientific critics that we are) carefully evaluate the straw that broke dear Stephen’s back: that is, the most recent IPCC report. The questions posed in Part II of this FAQ (Essentially: Are IPCC reports scientific or political? What are the criticisms of the IPCC? Are there possible alternatives to the IPCC?) become even more pertinent when a report like this one causes such a stir. Are we to trust the findings of this daunting collection of scientific expertise, or discard it, as some critics suggest, as the indulgent and intensely politicized meanderings of self-interested pseudo-scientists parading as authentic consensus-generators?
Sometime in the middle-distant future, we may hearken back to this part of the 21st century and refer to it disdainfully as the year 2006 p.g. (or Pre-Gore). For despite the most concerted efforts of a rather large host of concerned citizens and diligent scientists, never have we seen such frenzy over the possibility of dramatic human impacts on the global climate system as that to which we are witness in early 2007. Indeed, it appears that the now-famous set-of-slides-made-Hollywood-feature, in equal measures heartily criticized and unconditionally adored, has stimulated a groundswell of public awareness and concern over the ‘climate crisis’ (the term ‘climate change’ having been tossed out in favour of a more catchy phrase gasping under the weight of apocalyptic visions of anarchy and hurricanes). Soon after Al took home his naked golden man, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released their newest addition to the hefty tomes produced in 1990, 1995, and 2001. The timing could not have been more flawless. After all, An Inconvenient Truth had stimulated a rising chorus of scientific (and other) critics, who claimed that Gore’s team had jumped to a wildly unlikely and distant future, bandying about animated images of 7 metre sea-level rise and striking fear into the hearts of the well-intentioned. So, we emerged from the darkened theatre thirsty for a slightly less value-laden version of the ‘climate crisis,’ and were promptly supplied one by the trusty IPCC.
In comparison to Gore’s tale, the report of the IPCC (as it is wont to be) seems positively mundane. Yes, it says that the hundreds of scientists involved in the report are pretty darn certain that humans are measurably influencing our climate, but there is really no 7 metre sea-level rise to be found. The IPCC neglected to give us the crushing images of a fuzzy animated polar bear slipping off of his tiny pad of ice, but reminded us that warming is unequivocal. Nevertheless, having been pummelled and laid prostrate by Gore’s gang, we throw ourselves upon the mercy of the IPCC in the hopes of obtaining that nebulous and coveted thing called truth.
The question then becomes: is it any better to swallow the work of the IPCC whole than it is to unquestioningly parrot the predictions of Gore? In my opinion, for those who have normal lives (ie. Two kids, two dogs, a monster mortgage, ear infection, overdue bills, an allergy to Red Dye #2, unpaid parking tickets, an unrelenting caffeine addition and dreams of retiring before 70), I would say YES. After all, it is exceedingly rare that the average Josephine has time to flip through this month’s volume of Climate Dynamics or Strategies in Adaptation and Mitigation and decide for herself whether the automated statistical downscaling of coupled ocean-atmosphere models sufficiently captures the intricacies of regional geomorphic/atmospheric interactions in a scenario of anthropogenic warming. Furthermore, we do not have another collaborative of size, experience, and scientific rigour even remotely equal to that of the IPCC. Indeed, the 2500 or so good-hearted and slightly stodgy scholars who have volunteered their time to the IPCC proceedings are subjected to all manner of expert and government review over the course of more than three years. This is not to say, of course, that the ultimate love-child of these (mainly) men represents the flawless consensus of all climate change scholars on the planet, but it is by nature vastly more representative than any other scientific collaborative on the planet. So, if poor Josephine (who has forgotten to pick up dog food and can’t seem to make that stupid seam on her coffee cup stop leaking) needs a one-stop-shop for advice on the looming ‘climate chaos,’ the output of the IPCC is a pretty safe bet.
To those, however, who make it their business to be informed consumers of the science and policy surrounding the climate change issue, there are a number of criticisms of the IPCC that must be considered. First, it has been said that the IPCC is a highly selective body, choosing for participation only those scientists who fall in line with the overarching message, which is pre-determined. While this is partially true (it is common for authors who have participated in past reports to be invited to participate in future reports, thereby ensuring a certain consistency of message), it must be remembered that the output of the IPCC is widely circulated to critics and supporters alike during four excruciatingly drawn-out rounds of review. This includes hundreds of experts in the fields of atmospheric physics, ecology, hazards management, epidemiology, economics, political science and engineering (to name but a few), as well as members of think-tanks, governments, lobby organizations, activist groups, and Non-Governmental Organizations. No other scientific publication can claim to encircle such a broad range of perspectives. While clearly the opinions of these various parties cannot be accepted en masse, each and every comment is considered in detail by the author teams. Each suggested publication is reviewed, each new idea debated, and each fact checked. I’m exhausted just thinking about the amount of effort.
Despite this excessively thorough procedure, the lovingly and painstakingly prepared documents remain the whipping-boy of a host of scientific critics. Of course I wouldn’t dare imply that some of these critics are simply petulant children who haven’t been asked to play, or that, in claiming that the participating scientists are only trying to secure funds for their personal research agendas, some critics are clawing for the same goody-basket of funding dollars themselves. Indeed, it is carefully considered and analytical criticism that forms the foundation and rigour of science itself, so these vocal opponents must not be silenced. We must be vigilant, however, for in the broader (often rather fatigued) public consciousness, even a whisper of impropriety surrounding a document or organization that calls for uncomfortable levels of change on the part of governments, industry, and individuals is enough to cause us to change the channel and forget the message.
So, despite the output of the IPCC being a highly politicized and (fairly or unfairly) controversial beast, we must use the Fourth Assessment Report as a tool with which we can capture the current climate fanaticism. This unprecedented level of public awareness may be exactly what is needed to pass laws and formulate policies that are more forward-thinking than ever before in the short history of industrial capitalist economies. We have the opportunity to prove to our descendents that we are neither apathetic nor lacking in empathy and foresight, and that our vast stores of ingenuity can be used to solve the problems that our ingenuity created in the first place. Carbon neutrality, after all, is not a pipe dream but a concrete reality that can be achieved using tools and technologies already in circulation. Furthermore, the seeds of dissatisfaction with an existence based solely on consumption have long since been sowed, and climate change may provide an unparalleled opportunity to fundamentally restructure the stories that we tell about our culture. In the absence of alternatives to scientific collaboratives on the scale of the IPCC, we must use what tools we have to alter the story of the 20th and 21st centuries from one of degradation, consumption, poverty, waste and violence to one of innovation, foresight, equity, and peace.