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What (if anything) can be done about the IPCC?

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 8 August 2014

Although it has lost some of the status it once had, the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change is still a formidable body, and acts as a dead weight on attempts to change the nature of the 'climate change' debate. While its last (Fifth) Assessment Report was less forthright than its predecessor about the immediate necessity to decarbonise the world, that is still its preferred option, though it does now talk more about 'adaptation'.

In Paris next year there will be an important meeting of the countries that believe that there needs to be an international treaty about 'climate change', and even though at the moment I think such a treaty has Buckley's chance of succeeding, the IPCC's recent report will underpin the discussion.

I've said much of what follows before, in different essays, and I return to the subject in part because two British MPs, both of them scientists, have voted against an approving House of Commons evaluation report on the IPCC's 5th Assessment Report (5AR) because, they say, we believe the role of the Select Committee is to hold public institutions critically to account, not to act as their cheer leaders.


They go on: As scientists by training, we do not dispute the science of the greenhouse effect – nor did any of our witnesses. However, there remain great uncertainties about how much warming a given increase in greenhouse gases will cause, how much damage any temperature increase will cause and the best balance between adaptation to versus prevention of global warming.

What hope did they have when the Royal Society, in its submission to the Committee, gave 5AR a huge tick? The Royal said this: The latest report confirms that there is unequivocal evidence for a warming world, largely caused by greenhouse gases emitted by human activities. The IPCC report is based solely on publicly available, peer-reviewed studies by thousands of scientists across a wide range of disciplines. The main conclusions are robust and reflect the range of uncertainty, as well as the established science, according to leading climate scientists in the UK and abroad… there is an overwhelming consensus regarding its fundamentals. Climate science has a firm basis in physics and is supported by a wealth of evidence from real world observations.

There's no critical scrutiny in any of that, and a great deal is glossed over. The two MPs directed the bulk of their criticisms at the highly political Summary for Policy Makers that preceded the publication of the scientific reports, and they offer seven objections to the whole thing, which you can read. I agree with each of them. They conclude by saying: These issues were raised during the Committee's inquiry. It is unfortunate that they were not dealt with in the Committee's report.

There you have it. The IPCC can't be criticised, and though anyone who does a comparison (dozens have) will see that 5AR is more cautious, more uncertain and more turgid in its prose than its predecessor, the IPCC is still singing the same hymn. Weirdly, its confidence about its conclusions is apparently greater than it was, though at the same time, it is plainly more conscious of uncertainty.

So, what can be done about it? The IPCC is a political body, formed by governments to present scientific conclusions. John Zillman, the Australian meteorologist who once headed both the Bureau of Meteorology and the World Meteorological Organisation, has written of the inherent tension within the body: The IPCC is probably unique in attempting to use a formal UN-style intergovernmental mechanism to produce an objective scientifically-credible assessment of scientific knowledge. The achievement, in terms of informed dialogue between the scientific and policy communities, has been substantial but the process has been fraught with enormous tensions.

My view is that the tensions have overpowered the science, so that each of these reports has been progressively more agenda-driven, while the evidence to support the agenda has become decreasingly persuasive.


The basic problem is that the IPCC was set up not to study climate change, but only the human activities that lead to climate change, and 'climate change' has been so defined! The result is that 'natural variability' is not part of its remit, and seems largely to be ignored. But such was the brouhaha at the time of the 'Earth Summit' in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 that every country agreed that that was what had to be done, and 21 years later we are still doing it.

The only way forward, it seems to me, is that a country like Australia instructs its delegates to move towards better science - fewer papers about what will happen to the gnutless gnat if temperatures rise, and more about the impact of clouds, the components of natural variability, and the need for adaptation to all serious weather events. And to follow its advice with its funding.

Many want the IPCC abolished. I don't see that happening, really. There is far too much invested in it, not just in terms of money but in terms of political credibility too. Change has to come from within, and it is national governments that have to do it, by damping down the messianic greensters who seem to infest every climate meeting.

Such a lot of money has been wasted over the last two decades in the search for the anti-CO2 silver bullet. It's time for governments to try a more sober, less hysterical approach to weather and climate. Mr Hunt is the person in the right place to start.

[Afterthought: I wrote some time ago that our own equivalent to the Royal Society was going to publish a new statement on climate science in mid-2014. Well, it hasn't appeared yet. It will be interesting to see the extent to which it takes a more cautious view both about what has happened, and what might happen.]

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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