Climate Change Repetition ≠ Perfection

By: Ilan Kelman,

Here we go again. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is yet again publishing a report, as usual in three Working Groups with the reports spaced several months apart. The one perhaps most relevant to disaster scholars was released in Japan at the end of March.

This happens every 5-6 years. 2013-2014 represents the IPCC’s Fifth assessment, with the first one dating back to 1990. This year’s report tells us that climate change is happening, that humans are to blame for a significant proportion of the observed climate change, that there are ways that we can deal with climate change, and that we are not doing what needs to be done.

Does that sound exciting? No, of course not.

Because that is exactly what was said previously in the Fourth Assessment Report, released in 2007. Five years of effort involving hundreds of scientists, requiring tens of thousands of hours of writing, reviewing, and editing alongside thousands of hours of travelling and meetings at an immense environmental and carbon cost (and carbon offsets do not help).

All to tell us what we know already. So why does the IPCC continue? That is indeed a good question.

As a model for science, the IPCC (similarly to all models of science) has advantages and disadvantages. The IPCC brings scientists together, assesses and syntheses the science available, and reaches consensus-based conclusions. Those consensus-based conclusions are then reviewed by scientists and governments to reach summaries and overall conclusions acceptable to all, usually involving multiple compromises.

Amongst the advantages of the IPCC process are the consensus and the compromises. Amongst the disadvantages are the consensus and the compromises. Amongst the advantages are the interactions amongst and influence of scientists and governments. Amongst the disadvantages are the interactions amongst and influence of scientists and governments. The level and scope of the IPCC’s peer review is impressively thorough and intense. Nonetheless, glaring errors and misconceptions nonetheless get through to the final reports, representing a tiny fraction of the entire text yet tarnishing the whole.

Naturally, we all make mistakes. The importance is learning from them and improving.

How could the IPCC be improved? The fundamental problem is the self-perpetuating bureaucracy. The IPCC has become an institution, but it is not clear that institutionalised science, consensus-based science, or government-reviewed science produces the best science. As an experiment and as a start for the field of climate change science, the IPCC did amazingly well and is to be admired and commended. As the co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, the IPCC has demonstrated its significant political power and has earned deserved respect from society. Neither is a statement of scientific quality.

When nothing fundamentally new is presented; when so much time, effort, energy, and travel is taken away from new, original, innovative science; when an institution becomes a lightning rod for critics, is it time to recognise that senescence does not always represent betterment?

Has the time come to thank the IPCC for its needed service and then to move on from it?