There’s yet another kerfuffle about climatology going on. First, of course, there was climategate, whose total revealed knowledge is “if you hack into people’s private emails you might find out that some people, even climate scientists, are jerks sometimes.” Now there’s another one – in the IPCC report, there’s an error. That is, scientists took a non-peer reviewed source and transposed it into the report, and didn’t back check that source. This was stupid, of course, and should be criticized and corrected.
That said, since the material in the IPCC is overwhelmingly peer-reviewed science, this doesn’t really cast any larger doubt on anything about anthropogenic global warming. In fact, what’s astonishing is that with so many people so highly paid by Exxon and others to pick holes in the IPCC report, this is all they’ve found. Imagine this is all the dirt someone could find on a Presidential candidate – the party and everyone else would be thrilled! Get out the catchy slogans and the inaugural gowns – we’ve got a candidate! Actually, let’s imagine that – let’s do the thought experiment, and pretend that we have a Presidential candidate on our hands, Ms. IPCC.
Then, try to imagine that someone without any agenda at all was as well paid to read through the IPCC report with a fine-toothed comb and pick up any mistakes. Imagine that they too reported what they’d learned to the media, and the media drew our attention to the aggregate of the errors. What, then, would we find? Would we find that the Ms. IPCC was, in fact, clean and scandal free in every respect, ready for prime time and the presidency, or would we find a dashing young pool boy or girl, some stock market finagling and the cribbing of a good chunk of her autobiography?
I fear that Ms. IPCC would have more than a few black marks to her name. If her tremendous charisma (And, honestly, do you really think that the IPCC has tremendous charisma? Think Martha Coakley here.) wasn’t enough to get her through the equivalent of her little weekend at an Aspen ski resort with the governor of Minnesota, his wife and three professional mimes, she’d be back to cribbing a new memoir. So why don’t we hear about those shocking revelations?
The reason we don’t is that the mistakes in the IPCC have not been ones that the Global Warming Doubters have any incentive to publicize. Overwhelmingly they show the IPCC science to have radically understated the severity of climate change, and to have allowed themselves to be influenced in the direction of muting the evidence. The right has no incentive to point out the ways in which IPCC actually is wrong, in this case. The aggregate of the scientific evidence shows that it has been significantly wrong – but the evidence almost entirely supports the case that the Ms. IPCC, being a product of a committee, actually has softened her accounts of both what may happen and how to respond to it.
Consider arctic sea ice, for example – the nearest predictions on arctic sea ice put the summer ice-free arctic at 2013, while more mid-range projections now put it at the middle of the century. The IPCC? End of the century. Consider assumptions about how much emissions will increase – we know that they have increased more than anticipated. The East Antarctic Ice Sheet? Supposed to be totally stable. In fact? Maybe not so much – it may well be losing mass. When might we have to worry about methane leaking out of the permafrost? IPCC thought remotely a concern in 2100 – but methane rises suggest it may already be happening. The one thing we know about climate change is this – that the IPCC, for a host of reasons, has softened the story of how rapidly climate change is occurring and slated to occur. And if there was anyone to make money off of this fact, it would be plastered all over the news as the real scandal.
The IPCC is a committee, and it works like a comittee. Sometimes it makes minor structural errors, like putting a reference that it should have back checked. More often, it makes the errors you would expect from a committee that has to satisfy all the members, and that is fundamentally, a political body, influenced by the political institutions that support it and by the assumptions that underly most people who live in our age. It is going to make mistakes – and most of those mistakes are actually going to be mistakes of not wanting to push limits too hard, of not demanding too radical a change, rather than mistakes of overstatement.
Personally, I don’t think Ms. IPCC, aside from the lack of charisma, would make a bad candidate. She’s telling a hard truth the best way she can. She makes mistakes. She has a few scandals in her past, and probably a few more to play out in the public domain. She’s under intense pressure and scrutiny, and under the that level of scrutiny, she’s bound to fail sometimes. She’s flawed, and most of all, she’s flawed because the same qualities that make her a viable candidate, a viable institution to most people are the ones that most press her to make things look more positive, more hopeful. She’s the best we can offer under the circumstances – because she gets a lot of the basics, and we don’t live in a world where getting the refinements pays off politically.