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Real Climate strikes a good tone.

February 15, 2010

[Update: Science Insider has just posted a far more comprehensive summary of recent IPCC controversies with lots of useful links for those looking for more background]

Kudos to the writers at Real Climate, who have written a good pretty good post that deals with various accusations of IPCC error, and also with some general problems they see in the dynamics of media coverage of supposed scandals. I don’t always agree with Real Climate. They often come off as haughty and elitist in their efforts to set the record straight on climate change. I don’t fully agree with this post either (e.g. I think the disaster thing is a bigger deal than they want to admit), but they make some very good points and, more importantly, overall they strike a very good tone.

I’ve written a few very negative things about the IPCC in the last couple of months (e.g. here, here, and here). There have been two major themes to my criticisms:

  1. the arrogant reaction of scientists to perfectly valid questions and criticisms about IPCC science; and
  2. the various failings of the institution itself with respect to neutrality, transparency, and accountability.

These criticisms still stand, but it is important to remember the context for these debates, and I think the Real Climate post does a good job at this. I want to highlight two of the points made by Real Climate. The first relates to a lot of the journalism covering the IPCC lately:

There also is a sizeable contingent of me-too journalism that is simply repeating the stories but not taking the time to form a well-founded view on the topics. Typically they report on various “allegations”, such as these  against the IPCC…. Technically it isn’t even wrong that there were such allegations. But isn’t it the responsibility of the media to actually investigate whether allegations have any merit before they decide to repeat them?

Of course, I’m no journalist, but I’ve done the same thing on this blog. For example, I linked to a story claiming the IPCC had used questionable sources in its statements about the impacts of climate change on the Amazon. As the Real Climate post points out, these accusations were pretty flimsy. This fact does not really detract from my central point in that post, but my use of the article (and anyone else’s use of it) doesn’t help much either.

Secondly, Real Climate deals directly with the question of whether the IPCC needs to change. I was surprised to see them address this, and even more surprised to find that their answer is unequivocally yes. They make good suggestions regarding communication between IPCC authors on different working groups, and the publication of errata.

This certainly does not cover all the issues facing the IPCC from my perspective. For example, the organization still lacks an adequate policy regarding conflict of interest, and the IPCC chair is still behaving as a climate advocate while leading a supposedly policy-neutral organization. Nevertheless, the admission of fallibility by a prominent voice such as Real Climate strikes exactly the kind of constructive tone that the climate debate needs.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Tyler Gallagher permalink
    February 16, 2010 3:15 am

    RC concludes their piece saying: “Overall then, the IPCC assessment reports reflect the state of scientific knowledge very well. There have been a few isolated errors, and these have been acknowledged and corrected. What is seriously amiss is something else: the public perception of the IPCC, and of climate science in general, has been massively distorted by the recent media storm…We will follow with great interest whether the media world has the professional and moral integrity to correct its own errors.”

    This may be a justified admonishment of the media, but it is not clear to me that this sets up a ‘constructive tone’, or really admits fallibility. The proposed changes to the IPCC structure — ie publication of errata, use of relevant expert reviewers, and better collaboration between working groups — seem like minor, necessary tweaks. If you believe that the IPCC chair is currently defying the boundary between political advocacy and policy-neutral advice, then I would think it’s very equivocal as to whether RealClimate admits a need for change.

    I suspect that the media presence of the Himalayan and Amazon controversies would have been diminished had the CRU emails not been exposed. The CRU emails show an arrogance and a lack of transparency amongst some parts of the climate community. This lack of transparency put blood into the water, which is why media ‘sharks’ latch onto even the hint of a controversy.

    Also, note Pielke’s comment (#17), which he blogged about. I thought the comment was fair and focused on facts, and Stefan’s jab about Pielke not being an honest broker was below the belt.

  2. February 16, 2010 8:39 am

    Yes, all good points. As I said, they certainly ignore some of the issues that I think it would be important to address. And of course, as usual, they treat Roger rather poorly (although I recommend reading Roger’s full comment and the full response, rather than the account on his blog here). So there’s still a defensiveness in the tone, and a certain arrogance in their approach to detractors.

    Nevertheless I think their general statements about the significance of these particular errors in the grand scheme of things (with the exception of the disasters flap) are reasonable, and would be helpful to a member of the press trying to sort out various claims about. I guess your points make me feel more mixed than I did upon first reading.

  3. rogerthesurf permalink
    February 16, 2010 1:11 pm

    There might be global warming or cooling but the important issue is whether we, as a human race, can do anything about it.

    There are a host of porkies and not very much truth barraging us everyday so its difficult to know what to believe.

    I think I have simplified the issue in an entertaining way on my blog which includes some issues connected with climategate and “embarrassing” evidence.

    In the pipeline is an analysis of the economic effects of the proposed emission reductions. Watch this space or should I say Blog

    http://www.rogerfromnewzealand.wordpress.com

    Please feel welcome to visit and leave a comment.

    Cheers

    Roger

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