Every few years the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change publishes a report that attempts to assess the state of climate science, as well as other technical and economic issues related to global warming policy. The last major report, the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), generated perhaps more controversy than was usual.
FT has an excellent profile on the IPCC, which is now gearing up for publication of the next report, AR5. The profile reveals a group with a rich diversity of personalities and opinions. It also shows that the scientists heading up this latest report are acutely aware of the need to say something about the warming slowdown of the past decade or so:
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.”
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. The process by which greens dream up and then implement policies to address the problem of global warming makes the sometimes messy IPCC process look like a finely tuned, well-oiled machine by comparison.
Global greens develop stupid, horrible, expensive, counterproductive climate policy agendas, and then try to use the imprimatur of “science” as a way to panic the world into adopting them. All too often, in other words, they fall prey to the temptation to make what the science says “clearer than truth” in Acheson’s phrase, in order to silence debate on their cockamamie policy fixes. A favorite tactic is to brand any dissent from the agenda as “anti-science.” It is not only a dishonest tactic; it’s a counterproductive one, generating new waves of skepticism with every exaggeration of fact.
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.
[Earth image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]