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IPCC: Media Friendly?

Here’s three quotes from today’s IPCC press conference, which I transcribed straight from the webcast (hence the wacky grammar).

The first two are from Dr. Susan Solomon, co-chair of the report committee and an NOAA researcher, an eminent scientist whom I hold in very high regard, not least for her role in getting this report through the intergovernmental committee with its forceful language intact. In the first quote, Dr. Solomon unfortunately doesn’t answer the reporter’s question in “layman’s terms,” which it clearly required. In the second, she makes a good point about the IPCC’s role in advising policy-makers, but does it in a way that’s less than media-savvy. At one of the most prominent press conferences on a science issue this decade, it seems like an opportunity was lost to correct a stereotype of science and scientists. Though it certainly wasn’t the IPCC’s mandate to do so, it would have helped the cause.

The third quote is from Dr. Achim Steiner, Exectutive Director of the United Nations Environment Program, who makes a crucial point that I haven’t seen picked up on in much of the press coverage, and I thought deserved an airing.

QUESTION: Seth Borenstein, Associated Press:

“Some conservative think tanks are saying [interference]… that projected sea level rise and temperatures are decreased from the TAR [Third Assessment Report] in 2001. I know it’s a matter of more confidence and less extremes, but can you explain in layman’s terms why this is not a decrease in your projections through 2100.”

ANSWER: Dr. Susan Solomon, co-chair of the report committee:

(Answer, below the fold…)

Dr. Susan Solomon: “Well as I think I said, they’re broadly comparable but they’re actually hard to compare. I think a fair statement would be that, looking at the error analysis that we were able to do here because of the availability of so many models now–we were able to much more comprehensively analyze the uncertainties; so the statistics, really–and in doing that, from the point of view of, um, certain parameters, that allows a decrease in the uncertainty in the estimate. When you don’t have a lot of models, you might have to um, be a little bit less, well, rigor–well, rigorous is not the right word, I apologize. It’s a matter of you might have to be, ah, concerned about how far you would go without quantitative information. I think that’s what I really would like to say.”

QUESTION: Richard Ingham, Agence France Presse:

“Dr. Solomon, you’ve taken a clearly objective, neutral, scientific line in your presentation of the data. Could I ask you now to perhaps sum-up what kind of urgency this report should convey to policy-makers. What should be done now?”

ANSWER: Dr. Susan Solomon:

“I can only give you something that’s going to disappoint you, sir. And that is that it’s my personal, scientific approach to say that it’s not my role to try to communicate what should be done. I believe that is a societal choice; I believe science is one input to that choice. And I also believe science can best serve society by refraining from going beyond its expertise. So I do not feel that it would be in the best interests of society making this decision in the most responsible way for me to push for urgency or action. There are people out there who have that role. But it isn’t me. And in my view, it’s what IPCC also is all about–namely, not trying to make policy prescriptive statements, but policy-relevant statements.”

COMMENT: Dr. Achim Steiner, Exectutive Director of the United Nations Environment Program:

“Uncertainty is never a reason not to act, and I think one of the things that is also important as we present science: Science should not disempower individuals who do not understand the science from acting. And I think it is important that as we present this science, the public does not feel like it can now only sit back and say “well it’s happening and there’s nothing we can do about it.” I think the science is for experts and policy-makers and institutions to address the big picture. The important message, I think, of this report here also, is that scientists, to the best of their ability, have now addressed a question that is not primarily a matter of uncertainly anymore, but of ever greater certainty. And I think that the message that I personally from the perspective of the United Nations Environment Program would like to send out is that every individual can today walk out of their front door and cut their emissions by more than what Kyoto had ever envisaged or by what we are talking about for this century without having to lose the quality of their lives. There are consumer decisions that allow us to come to this science today, that we did nave even 15 or 20 years ago; and therefore the individual citizens should not feel disempowered by the complexity of the science. Because that is not its intent.”