The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Soap Opera Science The Politics of Climate Research Laid Bare

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the world’s foremost authority on the tricky subject of climate science, and its latest report paints a very bleak picture. This release is the second of a four-part series aimed at helping policymakers understand the various risks associated with climate change. The first edition, released last fall, bumped up the probability that humans are the main cause of recent warming to 95 percent, a reflection of the coalescing consensus among climate scientists of our culpability. Now, the IPCC is moving on from causes to effects, listing the various dangers we could face in the warmer years ahead: droughts and floods, heat waves and abnormally cold weather, rising sea levels, and lower crop yields. In short, very scary stuff.

But, as so often seems to be the case with these reports, there’s a fly in the ointment. A leading climate researcher, concerned that the report’s summary overstated the hazards, pulled out of the report just days before its release. The FT reports:

[Professor Richard Tol of the University of Sussex] revealed last week that he had asked for his name to be removed from the study’s summary—the most widely read section of the IPCC report—because he believed it was too “alarmist” and included “silly” statements about the vulnerability of people in war zones to climate change. [...]

An early draft of the summary last week, partly drawn from Prof Tol’s chapter, had said that if global temperatures rose 2.5 degrees Centigrade, it could lead to losses of 0.2-2 per cent of world gross domestic product. Some economists believe that warming would actually have a far greater impact and the final summary reflects this uncertainty more fully.

In response, Professor Chris Field, the co-chair of the group that published the report, had this to say: “Richard Tol is a wonderful scientist but he’s not at the centre of the thinking. He’s kind of out on the fringe.” The message here is clear: If you stray from the herd, prepare to be cleaved off.

This is more than just quibbling over tenths of degrees. As Tol describes it, the last-minute editorializing in this report is part of a broader battle over the role that growth and development has to play in mitigating and adapting to climate change: “I really liked the first draft of the summary for policy makers because it had development at its core…Many impacts of climate change are really symptoms of underdevelopment and poor management. That was the ‘consensus’ among authors then, and I don’t think anyone has changed his mind. Chris Field has led the message away from that, which I think is a mistake.”

Growth and sustainability aren’t, by nature (excuse the pun), mutually exclusive. In fact, green schemes work best when the two goals are pursued together, if only because the growth imperative is already so ingrained in the global economy. In that context, Tol’s point about the possible environmental benefits development entails is well taken. But this spat between scientists reminds us that the IPCC is a group of people. Scientists have egos, same as anyone else, and trying to distill a consensus viewpoint from a collection of them is bound to involve some kind of political wrangling. We understand climate change at its most basic level, but when you start adding politics, you open yourself up to more than just margins of error.

Published on March 31, 2014 12:13 pm
  • lukelea

    For those who are interested, here is Lubos Motl’s take on what the report looked like shortly before the last-minute editorial changes were made:

    IPCC: impact of climate change small, either beneficial or not

    Motl is one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists who, like Freeman Dyson, is highly skeptical (to say the least) of the “science” behind the global warming alarmism. The latest spin on the IPCC report (like the recent attack on FiveThirtyEight for having the gall to publish an ariticle on climate science by a “luke-warmist” named Arthur Pielke, Jr. who is a political scientists specializing in the area of public policy and science) is the work of roughly 25 climate zealots who police the mainstream media in order to maintain the so-called consensus. His argument is here:

    http://motls.blogspot.com/2014/03/nate-silver-roger-pielke-and-journalism.html

  • qet

    Tweeted by one of Slate’s resident faithful: “IPCC press conference: ‘If the world doesn’t do anything…the very social stability of human systems could be at stake.’”

    I had no idea that the IPCC scientists’ expertise extended to sociology. The IPCC: is there anything it can’t do?

    • Andrew Allison

      Tell the truth about climate change?

      • qet

        D’oh!

  • Andrew Allison

    “The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the world’s foremost authority on the tricky subject of climate science, . . ” Surely you jest? Name one IPCC alarmist prediction which has come to pass.
    Reality check: http://americanthinker.com/2014/03/the_coming_paradigm_shift_on_climate_.html

  • stanbrown

    The 3 most cited (in news media around the world) scientific studies of our generation are all climate related studies which have been embraced by the climate alarmists [Mann's hockey stick, Rahmstorf's 'worse than we thought', and Monnet's polar bear joke]. All 3 studies have been demonstrated to be, not just wrong, but ridiculous, incompetent crap. In fact, the polar bear study is so bad it would flunk junior high science. When the scientific establishment embraces utter crap and proclaims it to the world, it is prudent to question the judgment of the scientific establishment.

    Quality control is completely missing. Peer review, never an assurance of accuracy, has become a partisan joke. When the people in charge have no process for assessing accuracy and no interest in putting such a process in place, why would any sensible person place any faith in their judgment?

    • stanbrown

      http://www.wired.com/2014/03/quanta-freeman-dyson-qa/
      Freeman Dyson “it happens I have strong views about climate because I think the
      majority is badly wrong, and you have to make sure if the majority is
      saying something that they’re not talking nonsense.”

  • Dan

    I’ll just leave this here http://www.numberwatch.co.uk/warmlist.htm

  • mesquito

    Lord, Mead, it’s all about the money. Can’t you see that, with all your insight about the Blue Model and all?

    • Corlyss

      I still say Mead is imprisoned by academia’s mindset. He gets kudos for being a conservative foreign affairs historian and for getting his assessment of the US role in the past larger world correct, while his contemporaries are still trashing the US to curry favor with the likes of Obama. But he’s not a climate specialist and he can’t leverage his props as a historian to obtain similar respect for his position on climate change. It’s a logical fallacy, and he should shut up about it if he can’t report developments in a neutral manner.

  • Corlyss

    Anybody hear Chris Field’s patronizing, condescending crack about Tol? The whole reaction reminds one of the head-snapping speed with which dissenters were non-personed and air-brushed from Party conclaves in Russia in the 30s-80s. It’s obvious people like Field don’t care what is said about them as long as the money and the control remains theirs. As far as I am concerned they’re all money-grubbing phonies. Too little is made of the fact that the “hundreds” of scientist believers they claim are not climatologists but hapless non-specialists dragooned by university and foundation administrations into supporting junk science outside their disciplines in the interests of either retaining their jobs or helping their institutions jack more money out of donors.

  • jburack

    We do NOT “understand climate change at its most basic level.” We are very far from understanding even the basic mechanisms of climate as a worldwide system. Your tepid criticism here does not go nearly far enough. Recently, the American Physical Society (50,000 physicists) appointed a review panel to seek answers to a very long and very tough set of questions for the IPCC. The questions go to the heart of this entire shoddy enterprise. APS has been one of the alarmists’ cheerleaders, so this development indicates real scientists are getting VERY restless about the super-hyped rhetoric of the IPCC and its potential to ensnare all of them in disgrace. The science on which this alarmism is based is far more complex and far more tentative than anything the IPCC policy statements come close to suggesting. For instance, the laughably phony precision of raising a confidence level from 90% to 95%. Who do they think they are kidding?. Tol’s case only illustrates how even miniscule departures from the party line get punished. You ought to be focused on the far bigger flaws in the entire edifice, because they are starting to bring down the whole building.