Opponents of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tried strangling the IPCC in its cradle when the body was formed twenty-one years ago. Only hard-core climate change deniers are now sounding the death knell of their nemesis (as they have many times before), but support for the IPCC appears to ebbing, for a variety of reasons, and the future of the foremost science-based organization on climate change is in question.
The End of the IPCC - That headline appeared on Wednesday in the blog, American Thinker, above the lede: "Almost daily, we learn about new problems with the formerly respected UN IPCC."
Two misleading details about the post:
The first is the implication that the author is merely a passive recipient of information "about new problems" with the IPCC. That is false. The piece was written by S. Fred Singer, a climate denier who plays a leading role in publicizing and exaggerating these "new problems." (see, most recently, here.)
Then there's Singer's characterization of "the formerly respected UN IPCC," again, as if the author shares a sense of disillusionment. Hardly. In 1990 Singer founded an anti-IPCC group funded in part by oil giant ExxonMobil.
These details are important if we are to understand exactly how the IPCC has arrived at the precarious position it's in today. Opposition to the IPCC began before the group published any findings. The idea of scientists examining the possibility that, a) the climate is changing, and, b) the change may be linked to human activity - especially the burning of fossil fuel - was anathema to carbon-based industries. Their efforts to discredit the IPCC preceded any of the alleged flaws deniers such as Singer publicize.
The campaign to end the IPCC has been run on petro-dollars pumped into the political arena as well. The most infamous example occurred in the opening days of the George W. Bush administration, when ExxonMobil faxed the White House asking that the president replace IPCC head, Robert Watson. Watson is a widely-respected climatologist who looked at the data and saw the evidence for climate change growing - and for human causation, as well. There's no mystery why ExxonMobil wanted Watson out.
The Bush administration obliged. Watson was replaced by the man the United States had selected: Rajendra Pachauri, an engineer, not a scientist. Pachauri remains the current chair and the target of an anti-IPCC smear campaigns based on fabricated charges of corruption and on the fact that he is not a scientist.
Enter the Media
In a controversial New York Times front-page article this week, the attacks on Pachauri were repeated in the opening paragraphs, with the refutation buried nine-paragraphs below. Writing on his blog, Climate Progress Tuesday, Joseph Romm, a physicist and former Department of Energy official in the Clinton administration, criticized the Times piece as a prime example of "non-excellence in climate journalism."
Critics say that poor performance by the media has unjustifiably eroded public confidence in the IPCC. According to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, the total volume of environmental news coverage declined in 2009 compared to the two previous years, dropping to just 1.5% of the newshole (the amount of print-space or air-time available for news).
Chart by the Pew Center.
The quality of reporting suffered, too. One example, also cited by The Pew Center, is CNN's December 7th special edition of Campbell Brown's program:
"Global Warming: Trick or Truth?" reviewed the arguments of both "scientists and skeptics'" about global warming, but...didn't come to any conclusions. "Again, not taking any stances on this Campbell," reporter Tom Foreman said.
This faux-objectivity gives the same stamp of legitimacy to both scientific experts in climatology and deniers who have limited or no background in science of any kind. Given this faulty construction, most neutral viewers are likely to come away believing that debate on climate change is like discussing the possibility of life on other planets - mere speculation about the unknown.
The Current Crisis
Today, it's not just the usual suspects calling for changes in the IPCC. As veteran science reporter Seth Borenstein wrote this week, four flaws in the most recent IPCC report, all dealing with impacts of climate change, not its existence or human causation, "have some scientists calling for drastic changes in how future United Nations climate reports are done."
Borenstein cites an opinion piece in the current issue of the journal Nature, titled "IPCC: cherish it, tweak it or scrap it."(Subscription)
The reforms listed in the article range from fine-tuning the fact-checking apparatus to restructuring the IPCC's reporting process. The most extreme - the "scrap it" option - is written by climatologist John Christy, who doesn't believe that CO2 is causing a rise in global temperature.
Some environmental journalists have begun speculating, so far mostly in private, that the IPCC may be too unwieldy and bureaucratically entrenched to do its job. Tom Yulsman, a professor at the University of Colorado's Center for Environmental Journalism, made this argument on Wednesday in a CEJournal blog post titled: "Has the IPCC outlived its usefulness?"
Others wonder if the failure to reach a binding international agreement on cutting carbon emissions at last December's Climate Summit in Copenhagen may be a further indication that the United Nations isn't up to the task of halting carbon emissions. These questions are generally not discussed openly, partly out of fear of giving ammunition to deniers. There's another reason as well, a question that Yulman poses in the final paragraph of his piece.
If the IPCC has outlived its usefulness, he asks, "what should replace it?"
In what is likely the most contentious international debate of our time, it appears that nearly everyone agrees on exactly one point: love it or hate it, the IPCC is the only game in town.