21 June 2010

The More Things Change

Hans von Storch files a report from an IPCC meeting on seal level rise in Malaysia, indicating that not much really has changed at the intersection of climate science and climate politics (emphasis added):
Among the interesting details were introductory talks by political officials – who welcomed the presence of the conference in the capital of Malaysia, and demonstrated the importance of the topic by pointing to the evidence of climate change, which would become obvious by all kind of extreme weather, mostly related to typhoons and flooding. It seems that also in this part of the world the view has firmly be established among politicians that all extreme weather is due to anthropogenic climate change – which would imply that "stopping" Global Warming would go along with the end of weather extremes.

This was said in public in front of, say 100 climate scientists and science administrators (incl. Dr. Pachauri) , and – of course, nobody said anything. They did not take this talking seriously – assuming that the horizon for forgetting such talk would be really short. But then, one of the co-chairs of Working Group 1, which is organizing the conference, pointed bravely and explicitly to the extra challenge that the provision of valid scientific knowledge to the public and stakeholders would have to talk place in a politically charged environment.

Seemingly, this politically charged environment had just been demonstrated minutes earlier – illustrating nicely the presence of two competing knowledge claims, the media-cultural one (according to which extreme weather is due to Global Warming) and the scientific body of knowledge.
How scientists, politicians and the media treat the issue of disasters and climate change provides an interesting bellwether, simply because the science of the issue is so straightforward and misrepresentations easy to identify. All indications are that the IPCC has not learned much and is returning to business as usual.


  1. Roger, you write 'All indications are that the IPCC has not learned much and is returning to business as usual.' That's not the message I get from Hans von Storch's report above. He says that a government official made some handwaving remarks about climate change and extremes, and that an IPCC co-chair then mentioned the challenge of providing valid scientific knowledge.

    Perhaps this individual from the Malaysian government hasn't learnt much, but I fail to see how you reach that conclusion for the IPCC, based on Hans von Storch's report.

  2. -1-Richard

    vS says "nobody said anything" when the political officials spoke at a science meeting and said wrong things. Generic comments about science-politics don't really count.

    When I say "all indications" I am drawing on a larger body of experience and data than just Hans' post (email me if you'd like).

    But if you see evidence to the contrary then I am of course happy to feature it here.

    Go Orange!

  3. I wasn't at the meeting but would assume that the Malaysian government official spoke at the opening ceremony. That's not exactly the academic part of the workshop, so there was probably no Q&A session. I wouldn't be surprised if the government official left the workshop immediately after the opening ceremony, giving no further opportunity for public interaction.

    If, on the other hand, the opportunity did exist to say something, then it raises the question as to why von Storch himself didn't speak up. Or did he? This isn't clear from his report.

    As for the larger body of experience and data, if you were a student of mine and you'd draw a conclusion in an essay that can only be substantiated by data you don't present, well, then I guess I would let you fail! :)

    Hup Holland indeed, and thanks for your posts on the World Cup!

  4. -3-Richard

    Yes, there are many reasons why false information about disasters and climate change has gone unaddressed by the climate science community (and actually reinforced in assessments and public discussions). But I find none of these reasons to be acceptable excuses.

    The verdict is out on the IPCC, certainly until the IAC reports. I am happy to await what happens at that point to deeply engage the topic.

  5. Here's another example from a couple of weeks ago:

    John Holmes, the Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, said one of the biggest challenges facing the aid community was the problems stemming from changing weather patterns. "When it comes meteorological disasters, weather-related disasters, then there is a trend upwards connected with climate change," Holmes, who is in Australia for high-level talks on humanitarian aid, told AFP.
    "The trend is there is terms of floods, and cyclones, and droughts."

  6. It'll certainly be interesting to see what the IAC have to say. But probably more relevant to this particular discussion will be the publication of the IPCC Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation. It will include a chapter on 'Changes in climate extremes and their impacts on the natural physical environment' and one on 'Changes in impacts of climate extremes: human systems and ecosystems.'

    As for this particular issue, your conclusion would have been justified if an IPCC Bureau member or somebody speaking in their capacity as an IPCC author had made the comments. That's not the case. The fact that comments made by a government official in a formal setting go unchallenged in public does not suggest anything about whether or not the IPCC has learnt anything.

  7. DB2: Another example of what exactly? John Holmes is not part of the IPCC and didn't speak on behalf of the IPCC.

    I'm sure it's possible to come up with a whole list of public officials who said things that are inconsistent with the latest understanding of climate science. None of what people say who don't speak on behalf of the IPCC would suggest anything about the IPCC, other than that it needs to improve its communication efforts.

  8. -6-Richard

    There are at least two issues here. One is, as you point out, substantive, on the facts of the issue. And the Special Report will be the next important opportunity for the IPCC to faithfully represent the literature.

    Another issue, however, is procedural. The IPCC has already demonstrated that it is willing to step outside the normal assessment process and issue a press release on this subject in order to "correct" a news article. Having done so it would not be inappropriate for the IPCC to correct false statements being made at the opening of one of its own meetings.

    Of course, politicians have wrongly linked disasters to climate change for years, and with no public complaints from climate scientists associated with the IPCC (perhaps except from von Storch), so that they are not doing so now is not unexpected.

    But of course, that is the point of this post.

    As a thought experiment, imagine if a politician spoke at an IPCC event and claimed that the world is now cooling. I cannot imagine such a statement going unchallenged. Can you?

  9. -7-Richard

    As long as the IPCC keeps this statement stand uncorrected on its web site, I will continue to believe that the organization has unresolved problems:


    It has proven to be a slippery slope for the IPCC from allowing false statements to be made at a science meeting to propagating them itself.

  10. That's an interesting thought experiment, but there's a difference between the IPCC correcting itself or the IPCC correcting a government official. The latter would be unusual to say the least, and require some serious diplomacy.

    But to go along with the thought experiment, I think whether or not the IPCC responds to a cooling comment would depend on where the comment is made, and by whom. If the comment were made in a formal setting (e.g. by a high government official during some opening ceremony), then I would suspect that official protocol does not allow for any immediate rebuttal. For there to be any rebuttal at all would probably depend on whether or not the comment were broadcast and/or made in the presence of the media. I don't know if that was the case at the IPCC workshop in Malaysia.

    As far as I know there is no IPCC policy on making corrections. I do know that it has been unclear whether corrections to obvious errors in IPCC reports (e.g. the Himalaya glacier melting) would technically require government approval during an IPCC plenary meeting. The IPCC procedures will need to include guidance on how to respond to errors, and I would expect the IAC to provide recommendations for this.

  11. Roger, you do know that Jonathan Leake is in a bit of a pickle himself at the moment, don't you (concerning something he wrote about so-called Amazongate)? http://blogs.nature.com/news/thegreatbeyond/2010/06/uk_paper_apologises_for_bogus.html

    The IPCC statement you refer to is very defensive and does not focus on the substantive arguments. I find that a missed opportunity, but somewhat understandable given the situation the IPCC suddenly found itself in at the time. It did not have the capacity to respond swiftly and effectively, and unfortunately it responded swiftly and ineffectively.

    But I doubt the IPCC will remove or change this statement. If it did, it would expose itself to another kind of criticism: that it tries to hide things and rewrite its own history.

    In any case, when it comes to science, the IPCC should speak through its reports, and that's what it will do once it publishes the Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation. And as you know, I would have very much liked to see you as an author of that report.

    On a final note, the IPCC is made up of people. Not only do they make mistakes, they also have the capacity to learn. But they are much more likely to take on board constructive criticism than sweeping (and unsubstantiated) comments by Jonathan Leake and others in the blogosphere.

    Anyway, back to football. Villa just scored the first for Spain, and there's probably more to come!

  12. -11-Richard

    I suspect that we will be hearing more about the IPCC as the summer ends, and I am happy to revisit this discussion then.

    Meantime, Spain better add another goal ...

  13. A sensible IPCC would withdraw all of the AR4 reports for Working Groups II and III and say, 'Trust us, we'll get them right next time.' By leaving them out there uncorrected the IPCC is colluding in a massive abuse of 'The Science' (aka the activists' holy peerreviewedliterature, by which they almost always mean headline-worthy stuff from WG2 and WG3). Hundreds, probably thousands, of increasingly influential pressure-groups continue to use the IPCC's authority to justify mostly bogus predictions about the world's future. The IPCC can stop the rot now or it can let it spread even further until reality intervenes in a way so unequivocal way that catastrophism will be discredited for generations - which'll leave us more vulnerable to catastrophe.

    But that Swiss miss today: how?

  14. Vinny Burgoo said... 13

    "A sensible IPCC would withdraw all of the AR4 reports for Working Groups II and III"

    If one takes the view that the purpose of the IPCC is to advise potential 'treaty members' then withdrawing AR4 would insure there was no treaty prior to AR5.

  15. Harrywr2: If one takes the view that the purpose of the IPCC is to advise potential 'treaty members' then withdrawing AR4 would insure there was no treaty prior to AR5.

    Can you expand this for the hard-of-thinking? I don't get it.

  16. So where do the politicians get these ideas from? I assumed it was the misleading, glossy brochures of doom emanating from IPCC, NCAR and the rest..Or maybe it was just entirely accidental and politicians have no scince advice at all on the matters at hand? Communication indeed - les PR more facts!

  17. Have you seen what Field has planned for AR5? Apparently there are climate simulations that can predict disaster losses. That's news to me - I was certain they couldn't even get local temperatures remotely correct, never mind something rather more complicated. No references yet. And no mention of facts like 100 years of zero trend. Models are now truth, historical facts unreliable.