Friday September 28th 2012

The IPCC lowballs likely impacts with its instantly out-of-date reports and is clearly clueless on messaging — should it be booted or just rebooted? – And should IPCC chief Pachauri stay or go?

I don’t know what value the IPCC now provides.  But then, I had the exact same concern back in December 2007 (see “Time to shut down the IPCC?“).

As I wrote back then, “I am a fan of what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has done — and they certainly deserve the Nobel Prize.”  But even back then I didn’t see a lot of value in the IPCC going forward, as I wrote in long column at Salon.com, “Desperate times, desperate scientists”:

I think that with the release of the recent synthesis report, the IPCC has reached the end of its usefulness. Anyone who isn’t persuaded by that document and the general desperation of international climate scientists is unlikely to be moved by yet another such assessment and more begging. In particular, skeptical Americans are unlikely to be convinced by another international report that focuses on international climate impacts.

That’s even more true today.

I could not agree more with our Nobel Prize winning energy Secretary that even combining the hacked emails and the IPCC revelations, “if you step back and dispassionately look at it, this is a little wart on the overall amount of information. It’s a little bump.”  I won’t use up space in this long post debunking the charges against the IPCC, most of which are quite bogus.  RealClimate has done a good job (click here).  So has the Union of Concerned Scientists (click here).

What the IPCC is supposed to do is laid out in its February 4, 2010 statement:

… assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation.

My concern is that only the IPCC could so bungle its messaging that the media and the public are now left with the impression that it has OVERestimated the risks of climate change, when it has largely UNDERestimated them.  As Steven Chu says, they take “a somewhat conservative stand on many issues.”

If we lived in a world where the major media accurately and persistently communicated science to the public and policymakers, a world without an active disinformation campaign taken seriously by that media, then the IPCC might be effective as currently constructed.  But as I wrote in 2007:

The IPCC process is slow and unwieldy, and in the face of the rapid climate change we’re now seeing, the summaries are not merely understatements of the problem, they are out of date the moment they’re published.

The IPCC is not set up to provide intelligent messaging in the face of that rapid change or in the face of the rapid disinformation effort.  Quite the reverse:

Like Cassandra’s warning about the Trojan horse, the IPCC report has fallen on deaf ears, especially those of conservative politicians, even as its findings are the most grave to date.

Part of this is due to the IPCC’s own media naiveté. It doesn’t put a lot of thought into publicizing its reports; heck, it released this final synthesis on Nov. 17 — a Saturday! — in Valencia, Spain. Not exactly the best way to get attention from the most intransigent and important audience: Americans.

Last spring, the IPCC announced its next (fifth) assessment wouldn’t be finalized until 2014, which led me to ask at the time “Has the IPCC rendered itself irrelevant?

While glacial change may no longer be an apt term for what is actually happening to the world’s glaciers, it is an ironically apt term for what has happened to the IPCC.  Originally the assessments of the state of understanding of the science were going to be every 5 years, then that slid to every 6 years, and now we are apparently at 7 years between reports.

The Fourth Assessment should have been sufficient to jumpstart serious action.  But to update what I wrote last year, it ended up be out of date the minute the ink was dry for several reasons:

Indeed, the Fourth Assessment was out-of-date so quickly that the Bush Administration itself (!) issued a climate science report the very next year (which I’m told was held up for months by Bushies who didn’t want it to come out before the election) — signed off on by Bush’s science advisor, Commerce Secretary and Energy Secretary that pointed out in detail how much of on underestimate it was (see US Geological Survey stunner: Sea-level rise in 2100 will likely “substantially exceed” IPCC projections, SW faces “permanent drying” by 2050).

The net result is that the disinformers actually (mis)quote the IPCC report on behalf of their do-nothing recommendations and that we already know things are almost certainly going to be much, much worse on our current emissions path than the IPCC said (see here).

Worse, the IPCC wastes a huge amount of time and effort modeling countless low emissions scenarios that have no basis in reality.  Why is that a problem?

There is some of uncertainty as to what is the impact of a doubling CO2 concentrations (to 550 ppm) from preindustrial levels will be on overall warming, the so-called “fast-feedbacks sensitivity” of the climate (excluding feedbacks like the defrosting of the tundra).

The literature, as summarized in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment says it is “likely to be in the range 2 to 4.5°C with a best estimate of about 3°C, and is very unlikely to be less than 1.5°C. Values substantially higher than 4.5°C cannot be excluded, but agreement of models with observations is not as good for those values.”  In short, The possibility we are greatly overestimating the sensitivity is very, very low, whereas the possibility we are greatly underestimating it — and hence greatly underestimating the chances of catastrophic impacts — is quite high.

sensitivity big

Now if you take a low sensitivity and multiply it by a low emissions scenario, you get a low total warming.  The anti-science crowd then gloms onto that low number as evidence global warming won’t have serious consequences.  But the IPCC has never clearly explained that all of the low emissions scenarios presuppose we ignore the anti-science crowd’s plea to do nothing and instead take very strong action to reduce emissions.

The IPCC has never simply stated that on our current emissions path, we are likely headed for very high levels of CO2 — a tripling or quadrupling this century.  And that’s why most of the media has never explained it to the public even when many other scientists have come forward to explain it (see U.S. media largely ignores latest warning from climate scientists: “Recent observations confirm … the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised” — 1000 ppm).

The scientific literature is increasingly clear that if we take no serious action, catastrophic change might best be considered business as usual = highly likely (see M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F — with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F and Our hellish future: Definitive NOAA-led report on U.S. climate impacts warns of scorching 9 to 11°F warming over most of inland U.S. by 2090 with Kansas above 90°F some 120 days a year — and that isn’t the worst case, it’s business as usual!”).

But the media and opinionmakers and most economists have been led to believe those scenarios are the extreme worst case and very unlikely, when in fact they are simply what is projected to happen if we keep doing nothing.

The true plausible worst case is far, far worse — see UK Met Office: Catastrophic climate change, 13-18°F over most of U.S. and 27°F in the Arctic, could happen in 50 years, but “we do have time to stop it if we cut greenhouse gas emissions soon.”

Back in 2007, I wrote:

I just don’t think that continuing the IPCC process will have any meaningful impact on American climate policy. And much of the rest of the industrialized world is ready to make the necessary commitments now.

Maybe the only reason for keeping the IPCC is if you think it will help persuade China and India to act (assuming we act), and I have my doubts that future IPCC reports will make much of a difference to them. The IPCC process is slow and unwieldy, and in the face of the rapid climate change we’re now seeing, the summaries are not merely understatements of the problem, they are out of date the moment they’re published.

We also need a more credible body to analyze climate solutions (i.e. mitigation strategies). I just don’t think the IPCC persuades anyone who isn’t already persuaded that mitigation is practical and affordable.

I still think that is all true.  I still don’t know what value the IPCC now provides.  And I’m pretty sure India and China are acting only on the basis of what their scientists conclude, especially now.

For this country, I’d task the the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to do full literature reviews every two years, and special reports on key subjects like sea level rise in between.

Now I fully recognize the world is unlikely to boot the IPCC, so the question is, can it be usefully rebooted?

Maybe, but only if drops the unwieldy process of the big reports, drops most of the scenarios, and focuses on very targeted scientific outputs.

The IPCC should issue a report every four years updating our understanding of observed warming and climate change, how we know humans are a primary cause, and the broad set of impacts that are likely to occur under two or at most three scenarios, focusing on what happens if we stabilize at or below 450 ppm and if we we stay anywhere near our current emissions path.

Every year it should pick one major impact and do a full assessment of what will happen if we stay on our current emissions path.  I’d start with sea level rise.  Then water availability — expansion of the subtropics (Dust-Bowlification) plus loss of the inland glaciers.  Then ocean acidification.  Those report should include the plausible worst-case scenario and not just business as usual.

All reports should rely primarily on the peer-reviewed scientific literature.  Major reports by large groups of scientists on key subjects could also be included.

I don’t see a lot of point for the IPCC to do mitigation analysis, as I’ve said.  The International Energy Agency is far more credible and has far better models.

The IPCC also needs a budget for information dissemination, for media outreach, and for timely response to all scientific issues.

This targeted effort should be led by a climate scientist.  It needs to be a paid full-time position.

I wouldn’t fire Rajendra Pachauri since I don’t believe he has committed a firing offense.  I would redesign the IPCC and eliminate the position he currently has.

What would you do?

[This post has been updated.]

This article was originally posted on Climate Progress