Monday, January 25, 2010

The lessons from the current IPCC kerfuffles

The apparent errors in the IPCC's climate change material has created quite a storm. You can get a feel of the Australian media coverage here, here, here, here, here and here. The Australian itself, home to a number of climate change sceptics, has the greatest coverage.        

Several years ago now I explored (Science and Political Correctness December 2006, Counterpoint and the Climate Change Zealots April 2007, Climate Change Zealots Revisited April 2007) concerns that had been raised about the IPCC process. These concerns related to the objectivity of the process, the way alternative critical views could be squeezed out, the impact all this had on the direction of research funding.

Scientists involved with the IPCC process have reacted defensively. To quote from the Sydney Morning Herald story:

An Australian lead author of the report, Professor Andy Pitman, also said the mistake did not affect the veracity of the UN body's conclusions. He said that scientists were being subjected to ''an orchestrated campaign that's exactly the same as that was used by the smoking lobby to try and discredit science''.

In considering the concerns raised earlier as well as the responses by scientists, we now have three very different examples to consider. What might they tell us?

The first is the leaked emails from the University of East Anglia. At this point, I am not sure that these reveal that the science itself was wrong. However, it is probably fair to say based on the reporting I have read that those involved displayed a somewhat combative approach. No doubt we will learn more from the British Parliamentary inquiry into the matter.

The second was the inclusion of material on melting glaciers in the Himalayas that was simply wrong and was apparently known to be wrong. This flaw was actually picked up in the peer review process, but still got carried forward. Again, we have an apparent example of partisanship, in this case by the lead author. However, to my mind the key point here is not the original error, but the fact that it got picked up. The scientific process actually worked, if with a lag.

A somewhat similar issue arises with the third case, the argued correlation between climate change and natural disasters. If I understand this one correctly from the reports, the original claim included in the IPCC material came from what was in fact work in progress, and appears to have been corrected by the original researcher himself. Again, the scientific review process seems to have worked.

I think that we now need to distinguish between two things, the science itself and the responses to the science.

The reason why both the glacier error and the climate change/natural disaster process have proved so damaging lies not so much in the science itself, but in the way that the apparent scientific results were used and abused in the broader climate change debate.

In Australia, for example, the perceived relationship between climate change and the incidence of drought linked to IPCC arguments became a major factor in debates about proposed actions in the Murray-Darling basin, including especially land-use questions. If you look at some of the things that I have argued here, my concern here has been the way in which the debate seemed to be twisting judgements.

Now there may in fact be a relationship between climate change and current droughts, we just don't know at this point. My problem from an analytical perspective is that the previous over-emphasis on the IPCC material in reporting and popular and political debate may now twist thinking in the opposite direction, again making it difficult to look objectively at the issues.

To finish by summarising the point I have seemed to reach in my thinking.

To my mind, the concerns expressed back in 2006 and 2007 about the objectivity and impact of the IPCC process seem to have been justified, at least in part. However, I am also reassured in that the scientific process does seem to have worked in pointing out specific errors. This actually gives me greater comfort in the broad IPCC results, an opposite conclusion to that likely to be reached by many.

The big problem, and the big lesson from my viewpoint, lies in the way the scientific results were misused in discussion and debate. Here the question of balance remains important. Let's not throw out the baby with the bath water. 


Neil said...

I have been gathering references in my Google Chrome favourites on this one and propose a future post. It will have a different starting point from yours but comes to more or less the same conclusion.

Jim Belshaw said...

Looking forward to reading it, Neil.

Bruce said...

Oddly enough, I feel a little vindicated by this post.

I've always been reserved in commenting on climate change when catastrophes have been forcast (usually beyond the IPCC process), not seeing as strong a link between climate change and various predictions, as between greenhouse emissions and climate change. To the extent of finding Tim Flannery to be irresponsible.

(Corrected) errors in the science are one thing. But I've seen even by people who I think do a better job at writing on the topic than I do, discussion of the relationship between climate change and drought as if the details and extent are well established. (That and the melting of glaciers - the dynamics of which still aren't very well understood.)

Maybe I should have stuck with writing on the topic after all and tried to improve the way I wrote about it.

Jim Belshaw said...

Bruce, I think that you should and for the same reason that I do, to clarify your own thinking.

Speaking personally, I get very anxious in writing about things where I have no special claim to expertise beyond a reasonably good general knowledge. I also do not like fire fights - some bloggers glory in this, but I am into conversation.

What I have found is that careful recording of my own thinking at a point becomes useful later on. Sometimes I am wrong and I try to acknowledge this. At other times I prove to be right in whole or part. In both cases, I have a base to extend my thinking.