It's not enough to bash in heads, you have to bash in minds
            

Climatologist criticizes IPCC, says its conclusions are valid

News has been making the rounds that respected Canadian climatologist Andrew Weaver has throw his hat behind those that criticize the IPCC. And in some respects he has done just that, but importantly he has not called into question the science included in the IPCC reports, nor the conclusion that our GHG emissions are responsible for the recent warming trend.

So what are his criticisms? First, it seems that Weaver doesn’t want to see the leadership of the IPCC use their position as a platform calling for specific policy actions.

Andrew Weaver, a climatologist at the University of Victoria, says the leadership of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has allowed it to advocate for action on global warming, rather than serve simply as a neutral science advisory body.

“There’s been some dangerous crossing of that line,” said Weaver on Tuesday, echoing the published sentiments of other top climate scientists in the U.S. and Europe this week.

“Some might argue we need a change in some of the upper leadership of the IPCC, who are perceived as becoming advocates,” he told Canwest News Service. “I think that is a very legitimate question.”

There is some merit to this position, the IPCC has no business weighing in on the carbon tax vs cap-and-trade debate, or evaluating other policy proposals. As a scientific body they should focus on the science; they are not tasked with policy analysis. Their extent into the policy arena should be limited to informing policymakers of what the science says.

That being said, even though the IPCC leadership should not use their position on the IPCC to advocate for policy changes, they should still be able to advocate personally for what they think is the best course of action. Obviously this is a fine line.

But Weaver is specifically not calling for anyone’s resignation:

The IPCC is charged with developing assessment reports that inform policy.

They are not tasked with prescribing policy outcomes. As such, any policy recommendations put forward by the chair of the IPCC or any of its working groups represent their individual views, rather than the view of the IPCC itself. Some have been questioning whether certain statements by the current chair are appropriate. I agree that these are legitimate questions to ask, but that does not mean that I am calling for the chair’s resignation.

His second criticism is more interesting:

Weaver also says the IPCC has become too large and unwieldy. He says its periodic reports, such as the 3,000 page, 2007 report that won the Nobel Prize, are eating up valuable academic resources and driving scientists to produce work on tight, artificial deadlines, at the expense of other, longer-term inquiries that are equally important to understanding climate change… He also says the IPCC must stop producing huge, all-encompassing reports on every aspect of climate science and instead re-organize itself into a series of small, highly-focused groups, each tasked with examining a single specific scientific question and none required to publish their conclusions on quick deadlines.

And:

The IPCC is broken down into three working groups. These groups have become very large due to the enormity of evidence that has to be examined. As a consequence, there is not as much interaction among them as there should be.

The recent erroneous statement in the Impacts and Adaptation report regarding the likelihood of the Himalayan glaciers “disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner” is a case in point. Were there more regular interactions among the various working groups, such a statement would likely have been caught by the broader science community.

There is an interesting discussion to have here, but I don’t know enough about the IPCC process, and its effect on the scientist writing the reports to make a useful contribution.

But certainly this doesn’t suggest the science in the IPCC is flawed, as Weaver makes abundantly clear:

Weaver says the vast majority of the science in the IPCC reports is valid, and that the glacier revelations —”one small thing,” in a 3,000 word document, as he calls it — shouldn’t be used to discredit other parts of the report.

“There is not a global conspiracy to drum up false evidence of global warming,” he says.

And:

None of this changes the conclusions of the IPCC concerning the human contribution to past, present and future global warming. These conclusions are supported by the national science academies of the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Canada, China, India, Japan and a host of other nations. The real question is whether or not we want to deal with this problem. And for this, the IPCC cannot provide the answer.

Small mistakes are inevitable in such a detailed document, and should come to a surprise to no one.

Science works fine in aggregate, but this idea that science must have only flawless people doing impeccable work is a strawman set up by the superstitious to discredit empiricism through nutpicking. –Tim F.

The bottom line, is that the IPCC has never been above criticism (though plenty of criticism of the IPCC is so absurd it is clearly bellow the IPCC), and Weaver’s comments are worth considering. But nothing he said is a criticism of the science in the IPCC, not should it be taken as evidence that the IPCC reports cannot be trusted. They can, Weaver made that abundantly clear.

UPDATE: More Andrew Weaver in his own words:

15 Responses to Climatologist criticizes IPCC, says its conclusions are valid

  1. ScruffyDan, if the IPCC isn’t ‘tasked’ with policy analysis, who is ? You aren’t suggesting we should leave it all to a bunch of politicians and their ‘advisors’ are you ?

  2. It is being left of politicians and policy advisors, and the policy in Canada, and much of the rest of the world, is failing.

    If the Press spent half the effort investigating policy efforts as they do trying to invent a scientific controversy, we would not likely be in such a great policy pickle.

  3. You aren’t suggesting we should leave it all to a bunch of politicians and their ‘advisors’ are you ?

    How about if such policy analysis is done by economists?

    If the Press spent half the effort investigating policy efforts as they do trying to invent a scientific controversy, we would not likely be in such a great policy pickle.

    Only if such reports we properly written and referenced. A depressingly large number of reporters just report extreme claims (new world government, socialist plot… etc) without bothering to see if such claims have any relation to what is actually being proposed (they don’t!). Such reporting would do nothing to lift us out of our pickle.

  4. ScruffyDan, I have no great faith in economists – there hasn’t been a single economist I’d trust with making policy since Kenneth Galbraith retired, and he’s now regrettably deceased so there’s no way we can call on him.

    No, economists, IMHO, suffer from two very well-known defects:
    1. far too many of them share a critical misbelief in the “efficient market theory”, despite its long-running and obvious failures; and,
    2. for economics, innovation and technology is an “externality”. In short, they can only see the world as it it right now.

    Yet it is innovation in technology, which is coming thick and fast as it has for at least 100 years, that is the key point. There is simply no comprehension of the idea that acting against climate change might actually be profitable, not costly.

    Just ask the English who, about a century and a half ago, superseded their quite effective and reasonably efficient canal system with railways. Sure it cost a lot of initial investment (as indeed the canal system itself had), but the returns were not ongoing costs, but huge profits (as was also the case for the canals when they replaced horse drawn carts and drays).

    When eonomists can understand, even if they can’t model, the fact that tomorrow isn’t just like today but a whole new ballgame, then I’ll be happier to see economists involved in policy – but only involved, not ‘tasked with’ it.

    And yes, I did read your piece on the ‘consensus of economists’, though only 5 minutes ago :-)

  5. When eonomists can understand, even if they can’t model, the fact that tomorrow isn’t just like today but a whole new ballgame, then I’ll be happier to see economists involved in policy

    I agree with that (you said happier, not happy:), but still think that economists play a very important role in policy debates, and they should not be ignored.

    BTW not all economists suffer from that problem. Check out Lou Grinzo’s writings, they are quite good.
    http://www.grinzo.com/energy/

  6. ScruffyDan,

    Understood, however these matters won’t go away any time real soon now, so there will be opportunity to resume the conversation if/when you are inclined.

    But just in case you have a little time for reading and idle cogitation, if not replying, then I’ll just add a couple of points:

    1. there’s a role for lots of people in policy debates, even humble citizens such as thee and me. And yes, provided you accept the straight-jacket that economics is bound into, it can provide useful projections (though definitely not predictions). Provide you’re getting a genuinely disinterested projection and not just getting “the answer you paid for”.

    2. whenever the human race has had to, or has chosen to, make a significant change in technology, there is always a great opening up of investment worthy opportunity (just think about when we changed from diode valves to transisors!). And every time we do, those locked into the old technology have to either adapt or fail (as, for instance, Gillette was eventually able to adapt to the electric razer).

    So I have some confidence – well-founded confidence IMHO – that many of the “costs” of ameliorating climate change will actually turn into profits; in for example, solar thermal and geothermal technologies.

  7. Please feel free to continue commenting here, I am reading everything you post, and I wish I had more time to throughly reply.

    1. We do have a place in policy debates, but I think we need to realize our limits, and defer to the relevant experts where appropriate. Most people fail to do this, as does the media. Economists can help nail down the costs of different policy options as well as their benefits. This is essential in deciding which policy to chose.
    2. I’ve made similar points regarding the problems we are facing with intellectual property reform, though it’s been a while since I’ve written on the subject.

      Many of the cost projections of mitigation policy (which aren’t as high as most assume) don’t include the benefits to low carbon industries that we are all but guaranteed. That being said I do think the costs to industry will be greater than the benefits, but less than the cost of inaction.

  8. ScruffyDan,

    The Prospect thesis is a fine analysis of “getting the answer you paid for” instead of getting a realistic answer. The point about industry using ‘innovation’ is a significant one in coming to a realistic cost forecast.

    It reminds me of a case in my home town, Melbourne, when, back in the 1970s Melbourne was experiencing a nasty and prologed drought – as it is wont to do. There was a paper manufacturing mill that used water in its processing and then poured polluted water into the local river (the Yarra). They were told they’d have to stop doing it. Well, of course that was just TEOTUAWKI (The End Of The Universe As We Know It). Anyway, they complied. Some years later thare was another drought, and a journalist with a good memory thought he’d check up on how the paper mill was doing this time. “Oh, we’re fine,” said the corporate flacky, “we recycle our water now and save $500,000 every year [a lot back then] in reduced water consumption costs.”

    The point of that story is that the paper mill didn’t initiate action to stop polluting itself, but when forced to, suddenly found it could do so at a handsome ‘profit’ (ie significant cost reduction). I’m sure we will see many cases like that.

    Our place in policy debates is to participate, as every citizen in a democracy should, in answering the question(s) “Where are we going and why are going there”. Once those questions have been ‘answered’ (in the imperfect ways that democracies do), it would be the greatest of follies not to seek the advice of our ‘experts’ on how best to get there. And yes, that is when we must repay the right of freedom of speech and democratic participation with the responsibility of listening – and then doing what we’re told (subject to the usual caveats about applying ‘critical thinking’ of course.)

    As to ‘other benefits’, well, in the USA alone the mining and combustion of coal is responsible for upwards of 20,000 premature deaths every year. If the coal and power industries had already been paying out ‘adequate’ compensation for these deaths, they might find the so-called ‘increased costs’ of not doing it a little easier to bear.

  9. in the USA alone the mining and combustion of coal is responsible for upwards of 20,000 premature deaths every year.

    As my libertarian side would say, the coal companies should pay for this and all other negative externalities. If that makes coal uncompetitive, so be it. That is the free market at work.

    Speaking of coal, a recent study found that if one accounts for externalities mountain top removal mining should be banned.

  10. A fine, rational viewpoint that I have no essential argument with, though my possibly feckless ‘liberal’ ideas suggest that perhaps we should also find a way to just stop the killing, regardless of any other considerations.

    Nonetheless, I think we can both agree that the current economic models of ‘climate change amelrioration’ costs are most likely too high for too long, and that even if one doesn’t quite believe in the Kondratieff curve: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kondratiev_wave – and I don’t quite – that nevertheless, in fairly short order, ‘costs’ will be overtaken by investable opportunities.

  11. though my possibly feckless ‘liberal’ ideas suggest that perhaps we should also find a way to just stop the killing, regardless of any other considerations.

    I wouldn’t call that feckless, but I get wary of saying things like regardless of any other considerations.

    I think we can both agree that the current economic models of ‘climate change amelrioration’ costs are most likely too high for too long

    Maybe, truthfully I haven’t looked to deeply, but have been pleasantly surprised that the costs are less than I would imagine, or what I gathered by what I have seen reported.

    But I think that point is not that important. The real question is what are the costs of mitigation vs the costs of inaction. And in that regard the costs of mitigation are orders of magnitude smaller (even at the current estimates which you say are too high) than the cost of inaction.

    That is what matters to me.

Leave a Reply