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Scientific American Proposes Changes to the IPCC

A recent article by the editors of Scientific American (“The IPCC Has to Move Faster to Remain Relevant,” October 2013) offers multiple criticisms of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and suggests radical changes in what the organization does and how it conducts business. While well-intentioned, these suggested changes would hurt the IPCC’s credibility and duplicate pro-climate science efforts elsewhere.

Noting that “the IPCC is not built to do quick work,” the Scientific American editors bemoan the length of time between assessments (the fourth assessment was released in 2007 and the fifth is about to be released). The editors cite research results “that you won't find in the new report,” claiming these make the fifth assessment “already out-of-date” and “like yesterday's newspaper.” (Speaking of datedness, our crack research team googled this term “newspaper,” but were unable to find any references.)

This criticism of the IPCC’s publication pace is well-intentioned, but it is precisely this long period of sober consideration that gives each IPCC assessment its carefully-considered conclusions, copious data, and moral gravitas. The IPCC process does indeed require a cut-off; the Scientific American editors note this forces the IPCC to “stop considering new results a year or even two years before the assessment comes out.” But this is no great tragedy; important new papers will find their way into the next report, not to mention graduate seminars and climate textbooks.

There may be an impatient urge to include everything possible, but how many new papers significantly change our understanding of the science, in the manner of Tyndall, Arrhenius, and Keeling? If a new paper offers something of that magnitude, one could always stop the presses, but otherwise it makes sense to continue work based on what you have in hand.

Moreover, the rapid-fire response to new climate data envisioned by the Scientific American editors does, in fact, already happen. Reputable science blogs such as Skeptical Science (http://www.skepticalscience.com) and RealClimate (http://www.realclimate.org) do a bang-up job of highlighting current research and dispelling anti-climate science nonsense. There is no need for the IPCC to duplicate their work; rather, the IPCC can serve in a better capacity by offering a different product, one created not in a flurry of quick response, but in deeper, slower contemplation.

The Scientific American editors take issue with the IPCC for being “conservative in its proclamations, tend[ing] to underestimate the risks of climate change.” But conservatism is a virtue in science, where one’s conclusions should not exceed one’s data.

When I talk about the IPCC to undergraduate geology classes, I demonstrate the gradual evolution of the IPCC’s thinking through four statements about how the climate is changing. In the 1990 report the IPCC noted that warming is “broadly consistent with predictions of climate models,” finding in their 1995 assessment that the “balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on climate.” This evolved into 2001’s statement of “new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities,” followed by 2007’s declaration that “global increases in carbon dioxide concentration are due primarily to fossil fuel use.” It’s useful to point to these reasonable statements to show that the IPCC’s rhetoric is sober and conservative, far from the wild-eye alarmism which climate denialists claim.

Some new research claims should have waited for more conservative evaluation. Witness last week’s bizarre claim that fragments in the upper atmosphere might be aliens (they turned out to be ubiquitous diatoms). It might be responded that the results were published in a notorious crank journal, from which nothing better could be expected. But then consider that in 2010 there was an unfortunate debacle about dubious claims of bacteria from Mono Lake being an arsenic-based life form—and the premature, sensationalistic claims had the imprimatur of Science. Waiting a bit before trumpeting the Next Big Thing is a good idea, and it’s how the process of science should work.

Speaking of process, the Scientific American editors also took the IPCC to task for its “laborious review process,” suggesting that the IPCC “should also conduct its reviews publicly, online. Scientists would post drafts and comments in a wiki-style repository.” I couldn’t imagine a worse idea than to degrade the IPCC’s reputation by transforming its deliberations into a flamewar comment contest. Imagine the braying ignoramuses from climate denialist websites setting up camp in the middle of the IPCC’s work, bombarding scientists with absurd demands as they nitpicked through the scientists’ deliberations in real-time. While a wiki format has virtues for some kinds of projects, a wiki is not some magical tool to make everything better. Crowd-sourcing would be the wrong way to go for the IPCC.

The editors at Scientific American conclude, “The IPCC has to move faster.” But speed can be reckless, and what we need instead is for the IPCC to continue its great work.