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IPCC getting it from all sides

February 19, 2010

We’ve seen how the IPCC is getting picked over and poked at by the more climate-suspicious crowd. But a variety of voices from the other half of the spectrum (Bob Watson; Green Peace) have been asking whether the IPCC can really be effective any more in its current form. The lamentably influential climate blogger Joe Romm added his voice to this mix today, saying that the IPCC cannot do what it is supposed to do.

It’s interesting to contrast the reasons for the criticisms. Most focus on credibility. The recent scandals around science and conflict of interest appear to be diminishing the perceived cultural authority of this institution.

For Romm, however, it’s not about credibility, it’s about results. The IPCC has not managed to bring about real climate action, in Romm’s view, because of sluggish conservative science, and inept messaging. In short, the IPCC has scared us insufficiently.

Romm’s opinion is based on a few misconceptions about the IPCC’s role, and the environment in which it operates. First, the IPCC is supposed to be a “policy-neutral” entity. It is supposed to supply high quality science information so that policy makers can make value-based decisions about what to do. Thus, leaving aside the question of whether or not it really has remained neutral, we cannot judge the success of IPCC by looking at policy outcomes.

Secondly, Romm is arguing that the slow, conservative nature of the IPCC’s assessment process has led to major underestimates of the rate of climate change, and the potential negative impacts. But even with the process currently in place, a variety of errors and flaws are coming to light. Wouldn’t this state of affairs only be exacerbated by a less conservative, much more hurried process?

There is no reason to think that the IPCC could have been less questionable and more compelling by venturing further out onto various scientific limbs. It might have been scarier, but the IPCC’s power is not in its alarmism; it’s in the far-reaching consensus among thousands of scientists, and most of the governments of the world. You can’t get that without a certain degree of conservatism.

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