IPCC in Hot Water

Climate change – remember that? It doesn’t seem to be much in the news anymore, ever since that “COP15” climate change conference back in December in Copenhagen, where all the world’s important leaders flew in to confer but then only emerged with some lame, non-binding agreement. So is the crisis somehow over? Can we all go back to our old, comfortable carbon-emitting ways?

That is highly unlikely, as most realize, but that distinct lull in any seeming concern about human-caused climate change has come about not only from the damp squib that COP15 turned out to be, but also from the steep drop in credibility that has been suffered lately by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). And remember, that IPCC has been pushing the urgency of doing something about global warming just as much as Al Gore has with his Inconvenient Truth – as we are reminded from the picture of Gore and IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri, both holding up their Nobel medals and certificates at the 2007 ceremony in Oslo, that stands at the top of Where have the doubts gone?, an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in which reporter Matthias Wyssuwa pays a visit to the IPCC’s Geneva offices to see how that organization is doing.

The answer is of course “Not well.” Anyone following the climate change issue at all can figure out why. First there were the hacked and leaked e-mails from an environmental research center at the University of East Anglia which surfaced just before COP15, of which the tone of many gave some the impression that the climate researchers involved were not averse to playing fast and loose with the scientific facts if it would suit political interests. (Actually, though, none of this had any direct connection to the IPCC!) And then, just after COP15, came another embarrassment when the IPCC itself had to backtrack on what had been its published contention that the Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035.

Such incidents were like manna from heaven for all those many climate change-deniers out there, including those in the US Senate, specifically the minority (i.e. Republican) contingent on the Senate Environment Committee, who thereupon issued a collective press-release stating that IPCC reports were no longer to be trusted. What also happened around that time according to this article – I had not been aware of this – was that world Environment Ministers instituted an independent review of IPCC procedures, which should be completed by October.

So it’s safe to say that morale within the organization has taken somewhat of a plunge since that time only last December when IPCC Chairman Pachauri welcomed attendees to the COP15 conference “which,” he pronounced, “we all hope will lead to deeds – deeds that are critically necessary on the basis of the scientific estimates of climate change contained in the fourth Situation Report of the IPCC.” For an organization founded back in 1988, whose motto is “policy relevant, but not policy prescriptive,” all the criticism has been hard to take, and hard to respond to effectively as well: it had never had to worry before about public relations issues or “crisis management,” and still has no experts in those modern-day organizational arts on its staff.

Science & Politics Must Mix

Then again, all that is a bit strange, since from the beginning the “pure science” that IPCC scientists like to think they pursue has always been caught up in politics. You get a research job there in the first place only after nomination from your sponsoring government; and at the other (more important) end of the process, i.e. the issuing of reports, political representatives have the opportunity via various consultative forums to intrude and adulterate those reports’ original scientific conclusions. Usually that’s only an “opportunity”; a couple of anecdotes which Wyssuwa includes in his piece show how the scientists are usually able to defend the validity of their findings against such political pressure, but that pressure is there to be dealt with nonetheless.

Quite apart from the question of where Al Gore is these days (not to mention the severe winter most of us in the Northern Hemisphere have just endured – you’re intelligent enough to realize, dear reader, that that does not constitute evidence against man-made climate change, yes?), that current lull in mankind’s concern about global warming has to be down in large part to the regrouping stage in which the IPCC now finds itself. There is not only that ongoing audit of its procedures; independent of that, it has also recently fielded a flood of recommendations to consider on how it might better deal with the tension of politics wanting to intrude on the scientific process. These suggestions supposedly include that of cutting the Gordian Knot and simply shutting down operations entirely. In that case we presumably would then have nothing left to save our (grand)children from the rising waters and more-violent weather of the future save good ol’ Al.

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