Thursday, October 23, 2014

Dissing the IPCC and other Scientific Organizations - How Climate Deniers Work

One of the recurring tactics used by climate deniers, especially the amateur ones, is to dismiss with prejudice any scientific organization that reports the state-of-the-science with respect to man-made climate change. The most egregiously - and falsely - attacked organization is the IPCC. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which, thankfully, we all know as the IPCC), is written off as a political organization because, well, because it says "intergovernmental" right there in the title, doesn't it? So obviously it just makes stuff up to push an agenda, right? 


Since there is so much misinformation out there about what exactly the IPCC does it seems appropriate to give a little background. The IPCC was "established [in 1988] by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic consequences." By definition it is both a scientific body and an intergovermental body. As a scientific body it "reviews and assesses the most recent scientific, technical and socio-economic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change. " It is an intergovernmental body in that it is "open to all member countries of UN and WMO," and representatives from up to around 130 countries participate in the plenary sessions where decisions about adoption of the technical reports are done. Note that the governmental representatives only show up to adopt the technical reports; the technical reports themselves are written by scientists expert in the fields pertinent to the particular part of the report being written.

The IPCC didn't come into existence on a whim or from some political motive. It was established because there was already a vast amount of empirical evidence suggesting that human activity was causing a dramatic warming of the planet. At the time, this information was spread out in thousands of independent papers and reports all over the world, as well as observations such as retreating glaciers, increasing temperature readings, ice cap extent and volume measurements, and new data from satellites. It was becoming obvious that something was happening to our climatic system, but with the information scattered all over the place it was hard to tell what was causing it. In short, the IPCC was formed to bring all the data from all these sources together, and summarize it into something that could be understood by policymakers charged with making decisions.

While climate denialists like to make believe the IPCC is some sort of political behemoth created to push some agenda, this characterization couldn't be further from the truth. The IPCC staff are actually very few in number (about 10 people). The work of summarizing the state-of-the-science is done by thousands of scientists who volunteer their time to compile, review, and assess the tens of thousands of peer reviewed and related publications and studies. These scientists generally are academics at universities or at scientific agencies such as NASA and NOAA in the US, and their counterparts in countries all over the world. It takes several years to summarize the data for each report.

So contrary to the grand conspiracists that dominate climate denialism, the IPCC doesn't conduct any new research itself nor dictate what is to be written, it is merely an administrative vehicle to coordinate the compiling and evaluating being done by scientists across the globe. These scientists work in diverse teams to synthesize the vast amounts of available information and produce technical reports for each of the three working groups. Only after the technical reports are completed does the IPCC convene representatives from each group and each country to agree on a fourth volume called the Synthesis Report, which as the name implies, summarizes the three technical reports in a way that government officials and the public can understand. 

Since its inception in 1988 the IPCC has published five sets of Assessment documents, in 1990, 1995, 2001, 2007, and 2013/2014. Each succeeding report incorporates all the new research since the last report (plus a reevaluation of the previous studies), and the more we know and understand the more certain we become about the fact that the planet is warming and the likelihood that we are causing it. The most recent, Assessment Report 5 (AR5), concluded that "the warming of the climate system is unequivocal," [p.4] and that "it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century." [p.17] Using the IPCC's terminology, "extremely likely" means between 95% and 100% certainty, and "unequivocal" means clear and unambiguous (i.e., absolutely certain). In other words, climate change is happening and it's because of human activity.

Next up is the process of developing the Synthesis Report, and IPCC rules require 100% consensus among the representatives at the plenary session. This is done long after the three technical reports are completed by the scientists and the synthesis report must obviously conform to the science presented. Since some participating governments rely so heavily on income from the fossil fuels that are the primary contributor to global warming, these members tend to work hard to water down the conclusions in the synthesis report as much possible. Thus, the "100% consensus" process tends to result in estimates that are less dire (NOT more dire) than the science actually supports. So the problem is very likely much worse than the IPCC Synthesis Report suggests. 

As anyone at this point should be able to see, the IPCC itself is merely an administrative vehicle to coordinate the work of thousands of scientist contributors, expert reviewers, and myriad commenters as they pull together all of the scientific studies and synthesize the conclusions derived from those studies. Since these scientists come from a wide range of countries, backgrounds, and views (including contrarian and climate denier views), suggestions that there is a grand conspiracy to further some single agenda is, to put it nicely, bonkers. 

The professional denialist lobby and their spokespeople, of course, know that the science is unequivocal. But they are paid to further the interests of their benefactors and intentionally choose to ignore the science they find inconvenient, and routinely seed the blogosphere with misrepresentations and outright falsehoods so that amateur denialists have fodder to plagiarize. The professional lobby knows that the ideologically motivated amateurs won't really understand what they repeat, nor be particularly skeptical of the sources despite delusionally referring to themselves as skeptics. It's more than a little cynical on their part, for sure, but that's what they are paid to do and they do it well. So they dishonestly demean the IPCC and chuckle at the ideologues who further their goals. 

The amateurs? We'll discuss more about their traits and tactics as we continue the series. One ubiquitous trait of amateur denialists is contradiction (often in the same sentence). More on that soon.