Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Politics of IPCC Errors

Like all organizations, scientific and otherwise, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) occasionally makes errors in its reports. Unlike some organizations, when an error is exposed, the IPCC corrects it. However, in the current climate of "Climategate," which started with leaked e-mails messages from the climate research center at the University of East Anglia, occasional IPCC errors take on added significance.

For climate deniers and skeptics (I'm still not sure of the difference between the two groups) everywhere, IPCC errors constitute proof that climate change is a problem manufactured by the conspiratorial forces of "Big Science," or some such nonsense. Op-ed pages in the US and UK are full of demands that the IPCC has lost all credibility and should be disbanded, that climate scientists should start their researches anew in greater openness and transparency, and that in the meantime, nothing should be done either to mitigate climate change or to assist regions of the world that already are suffering adaptation-related costs.

Fortunately, the good folks over at RealClimate.org have attempted to set the record straight (here) with a complete and detailed explanation of (a) how the IPCC is structured and functions, (b) which findings from the 4th Assessment Report (2007) were erroneous and how those errors arose (and really should not have arisen in the first place), and (c) how other so-called "errors" are based either on fallacious interpretations or cherry-picking quotations out-of-context.

Unfortunately, unlike the IPCC and the thousands of scientists who provide it with data, editorial-page writers rarely admit their errors, misreadings, and misinterpretations. Even more unfortunately, the IPCC and climate scientists may not fully appreciate the nature of the fight they are in. This is not a dispute over good versus bad science (which ultimately is settled by more science) but a large-scale political effort designed to (1) discredit climate science and (2) thereby destroy prospects for meaningful climate policy. Most unfortunate of all, the efforts to discredit climate science seem to be unnecessary, after Copenhagen, to prevent meaningful climate policy. Even if there were no political disputes over the science, short-term prospects for meaningful climate policy in the US or anywhere else in the world (other than perhaps Europe) seem somewhere between slim and none.

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