Tony Gilland: Time To Move On From The IPCC?

  • Date: 26/10/10

Writing in the pages of The Times last week, Martin Rees and Anthony Giddens issued a stark warning that extreme weather events, such as the recent flooding in Pakistan and the heat wave in Russia, ‘will grow in frequency and intensity as the world warms’. Noting the controversy that climate science has been mired in since December 2009, they strongly emphasise that ‘the core scientific findings about human induced climate change and the dangers it poses remain intact’ and demand a ‘renewed drive’ to ‘wake the world from its torpor’ and limit carbon emissions.

In the light of the UEA and IPCC scandals, it is a shame that their response to the climate controversies appears to be more of the same: scare and dogmatic instruction.

Whilst it may be fair to conclude that what has happened doesn’t alter the fundamental understanding of climate change achieved to date, a conclusion reached by Fred Pearce in his enlightening book The Climate Files does at least accept that was has gone on is significant. From the prominence given to Michael Mann’s infamous hockey stick graph in the IPCC’s 2001 report, with the desire to give a compelling story to policymakers clearly winning out over caution regarding the treatment of the data; to the current IPCC chairman’s ignorant and incorrect dismissal of those questioning the IPCC’s 2007 prediction of the Himalayan Glaciers melting by 2035, one very quickly gets the impression of a febrile atmosphere surrounding the conduct of important aspects of the climate science debate.

For scientists who believe that it is important to take significant action to reduce carbon emissions now, it must be very frustrating to have witnessed so much controversy played out around a few key errors of judgement. However, there have been other instances of important institutions and eminent individuals choosing to present a one-sidedly alarmist picture of what is currently known in an attempt to close down debate and achieve political action. Take, for example, the British government organised Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change conference (2005) which promoted concerns to the world’s media about extreme scenarios, like the Gulf Stream shutting down or rapid melting in Antarctica, in advance of the Gleneagles G8 summit where Tony Blair hoped to use the UK’s G8 presidency to move climate change up the global agenda.

Whilst Rees, and the Royal Society of which he is president, have acknowledged that unhelpful exaggerations about climate change have been made, perhaps the more important lesson of the whole affair is the overemphasis on the role that science should play in the climate debate. Clearly we should want to know what science has to tell us, but what has been extremely unhelpful is the notion, promoted at the launch of the IPCC’s 2007 report, that the time for debate is over.

A more meaningful response to the challenges presented by climate change needs to be a more political one. For there to be any chance of achieving a positive outcome, a genuine political and public debate first has to take place. Rather than kowtowing to those that demand that the time for debate is over, we need to insist that the debate has not even been had. The debate that needs to take place is not about the ins and outs of climate science, but rather how we view the scope for human ingenuity, entrepreneurship and collaboration to transform all our societies to become wealthier, more resilient and with greater access to a wider range of technologies. This is what we should be aiming for regardless. The scale of the devastation and human misery caused by the floods in Pakistan would simply not have occurred in a more developed country.

To do this not only requires a step back from incessant debates and foreboding about the latest climate science, but for us to take a long hard look at the cultural trends that have shaped our response to this issue to date. Since the fact of increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere was first established in the 1960s, we have become increasingly pessimistic about the ability of humans to act purposefully and positively on the world and inclined towards seeing ourselves as primarily a source of grave danger. With this prevailing outlook, whatever the reality of climate sensitivity to green-house gases turns out to be, we can be assured of a thoroughly miserable time.

Though the reputation of the IPCC has been dented this year, the bigger problem is the authority many invested in it as the font of all knowledge and wisdom on the climate change issue. Surely it’s time to move on and have a freer and wider debate for ourselves unconstrained by the diktats of ‘the science’ and attempts to scare us?

Tony Gilland is science and society director at the Institute of Ideas. He is speaking at the debate Can we trust the evidence? The IPCC – a case study at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 31 October, alongside Oliver Morton and Fred Pearce.

The Times, 26 October 2010
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