Third time’s not the charm for the IPCC

Icebergs in Chilean PatagoniaThe first two working groups of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have produced two extraordinarily useful reports.

The first examined the science behind climate change, reconciling the various models to show what, on a global scale, is likely to happen under different possible concentrations of gases in the atmosphere. (The “summary for policymakers” — link goes to a PDF — is what got all the attention, though some skeptics insisted we needed to wait for the full document before taking it seriously. It’s now out, and I look forward to hearing the skeptics’ comments on it, in all its stupefying detail.)

The second examined specific effects that can be expected in different parts of the world (PDF), from rising sea levels to screwed-up agriculture to animal die-offs. It’s still in the summary-for-policymakers stage.

These groups’ reports are so worthwhile because they represent a consensus, a baseline on stuff that everyone involved in the climate-change issue ought to be able to agree on. Vast panels of scientists have reviewed the work that goes into the final documents, along with vast panels of diplomats from every country in the world, including skeptical governments like those in Canada, China, and the United States. These constitute a sort of agreed-upon statement of facts among parties who might not agree on much else. The governments have signed off on a process in which they agreed to participate; they can’t legitimately say the results are full of it.

You’re free to differ with them yourself, of course, but doing so means challenging the closest thing you’ll ever find to a scientific and international diplomatic consensus. Science isn’t done by consensus, it’s true, but claiming that all these professionals simply have it wrong means challenging the very idea of expertise as the rest of us understand it. We’re not talking here about whether the designated-hitter rule is good for baseball, but the twin edifices of modern science and education.

The third working group is due to report this Friday, on mitigation measures and things we might do to prevent human-induced climate change from getting too bad. An outline of the thing is here (PDF), though it’s not very informative.

It appears, according to the Associated Press’s Michael Casey who’s on the scene in Bangkok, that the scientists are battling very seriously with the diplomats and might not be able to find a consensus.

The report being debated this week in Bangkok stresses the world must quickly embrace a basket of technological options – already available and being developed – to limit the temperature rise to two degrees C. More than 200 delegates will examine the IPCC report and recommend changes before it is finalized.

The U.S. wants clauses inserted saying the cost of current available technologies to reduce emissions “could be unacceptably high,” and calling for a greater emphasis on “advanced technologies,” many of which are aimed at extending the use of coal.

But maybe they shouldn’t really be trying to find a consensus. What they’re doing, in the third IPCC working group, is trying to make policy recommendations — or, if the IPCC’s mandate is to be strictly interpreted, policy decisions, where the first two groups were just making statements of fact. How much warming is too much to bear? What’s a reasonable cost to incur in arresting it? What complex social effects, and unintended consequences, might particular technologies have?

Maybe if the politicians and diplomats got to shove their oars into discussions of the facts, the climatologists and algae biologists should get to shove theirs into discussions of the policy prescriptions, but even if that’s fair, it’s not necessarily helpful. Defining what’s real is the province of science, and if you can get politicians to formally agree with what a thousand scientists come up with, that should form the basis of good policy. Defining what’s good is the province of politics, and there’s no reason to think any scientist has any more to say about that than anybody else does.

Photo credit: Flickr/Steve Deger

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One response to “Third time’s not the charm for the IPCC

  1. Pingback: The vast gap between Canada and the rest of the world « The EcoLibertarian

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