Independent review of climate science tells us nothing we didn't already know


I've been traveling the last couple of days, so this may be a bit old, but I wanted to do a quick update on "What's Up With Inaccuracies in the IPCC Report?"

When we last left our intrepid international panel of scientists, they were fending off criticism over mistakes found in the 2007 Working Group II report, which summarizes the impacts of climate change. Specifically, the IPCC predicted Himalayan glaciers receding at a rate that glaciologists said was ridiculous. Worse, the faulty fact came from a World Wildlife Fund position paper, rather than peer-reviewed research. Things only got more fun when Rajendra K. Pachauri responded to the criticism in a manner more befitting a LiveJournal owner than an IPCC chairman.

Short story: There was sketchiness. The Dutch government sent an independent commission to look into it.

The results are back now, and what they found isn't terribly surprising.

The science of climate change—in the big-picture, Earth-is-getting-warmer-and-humans-are-causing-it-and-that-is-bad sense—remains sound and reliable. There is, however, a lot of uncertainty over what a hotter planet means, in terms of detailed, localized impacts—and, thus, a big range of reasonable possibilities for what could go wrong, when and where. This is pretty much exactly what I've been told by every climate scientist I've ever talked to.

Where the IPCC went wrong, according to the Dutch report, was in emphasizing the worst-case scenarios while not making the background uncertainty clear enough. Which sounds pretty damning, until you understand what that actually means. In this context, we aren't talking about inventing a disaster. We're talking about slightly overstating it. For example:

The IPCC said that by the year 2020, between 75 million and 250 million Africans would be at risk of "water stress" (ie not having enough water). PBL says that based on the science available, the figures should be 90-220 million – but that the IPCC projections fit within the "range of uncertainty" in the science.

Here's the bottom line: In a massive, multinational report there were 35 errors found. Many of them typos. They don't change any of the fundamental, mainstream conclusions about climate change. Also, the IPCC could stand to do a better job of communicating the inherent uncertainties of climate science with the public.

And all God's children said, "Well, duh."

What's interesting to me, then, is how you get the BBC reporting it as Dutch Review Backs UN Climate Science Report, while the exact same story is headlined Dutch Review Raises Concerns About Climate Report in the Wall Street Journal. I wish I could say that most of the coverage I've seen went with the far more accurate BBC spin.

Related side note: There have now been THREE independent reviews into the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit email scandal*. All three have exonerated the scientists involved of accusations that they were concealing data, fudging facts, intentionally misleading the public, undermining the IPCC, etc. The most recent one came out today. It did find that the scientists were too quick to circle the wagons and, in the process, didn't "display the proper degree of openness" with their data. Basically, they had nothing to hide, but kind of acted like they did.

Like the IPCC kerfluffle, what we've learned here is that the science is sound, but the scientists (and, if we're honest, the press) aren't doing a very good job of explaining that science and countering skeptics. The excellent Erin Biba at Wired already tackled this problem (and its solution) a couple months ago:

Rather than brainstorming methods for changing public perception, the speakers wasted three hours trying to find someone to blame. Was it an anti-global-warming campaign by the coal industry? Journalists trying to make their stories appear "balanced"? The Climate-gate emails from the University of East Anglia?

But those are the wrong questions. What the scientists should have been asking was how they could reverse the problem. And the answer isn't more science; it's better PR. When celebrities like Tiger Woods or Tom Cruise lose control of their image, they don't waste time at conferences. They hire an expert. What the climatology community needs is a crackerjack Hollywood PR team.

*I refuse to call it "Climategate" because I am completely sick of the cutesy, nonsensical -gate suffix as an indicator of scandal and am trying to be the change I'd like to see in the world.

Image courtesy Andres Rueda via CC