IPCC Roundup: Stories Turn to IPCC’s Purpose, Scope

We’re another day closer to the release of the first official round of documents from the gigantic new climate report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Scientists and government representatives are meeting in Stockholm to hammer out the final language of the most widely-read portion of the document, known as the Summary for Policymakers. The summary is approved word-by-word, which makes for painstaking work for the government officials and scientists at the meeting.

The dais during the opening session of IPCC Working Group I (l-r): Lena Ek, Minister for the Environment, Sweden, IPCC WGI Co-Chairs Thomas Stocker and Dahe Qin, IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri, and Renate Christ, Secretary of the IPCC.
Credit: IISD.

Much of Tuesday's IPCC coverage took a broader look at the IPCC's purpose and scope as it enters its third decade of existence and prepares to publish its fifth major climate science assessment report.

The Associated Press filed a dispatch from Stockholm, which included the number of comments — more than 50,000 — that the authors have considered when drafting this portion of the report, known as the Working Group One report. “I know of no other document that has undergone this scrutiny,” Thomas Stocker, co-chair of the working group said. “It stands out as a reliable and indispensable source of knowledge about climate change.”

The AP story also noted that 60 percent of the authors of the forthcoming report were new to the IPCC process. That is significant, since the report's conclusions are expected to depart only slightly from the last major report in 2007, despite the changeover in authorship.

One question asked by several reporters was whether the massive tomes of dense information that the IPCC produces every six years or so are still valuable, or if shorter-turnaround, more targeted assessments on single topics of interest to policymakers would be more useful.

As NPR’s Richard Harris reported, the IPCC’s findings may not have the same impact that they once did, largely because there aren’t many new insights in the report.

Harris quoted Princeton climate scientist (and Climate Central board member) Michael Oppenheimer as saying, “There is a certain view now, and I tend to agree with it, that repeating the same story again and simply refining the findings in a way which makes marginal improvements isn't all that helpful.”

Reuters also took a big-picture look at the IPCC and as Myles Allen of Oxford University said in the story, “A blockbuster every six years is no longer really helpful.”

“Many experts instead favor more frequent and targeted reports, for instance about droughts, floods and heatwaves in the preceding year, to see if climate change is influencing their frequency or severity,” Reuters said.

Two fascinating pieces on scientific uncertainty as it pertains to the IPCC were published on Tuesday. The first was an opinion piece by Bloomberg View columnist Mark Buchanan, who wrote that the IPCC should be praised for acknowledging the uncertainties in climate science, rather than faulted.

“Skeptics savaged the (draft) report for revising slightly downward earlier estimates of the warming likely to be seen in the next two decades — as if trying to be accurate was an offense,” Buchanan wrote. “The scientists behind the IPCC report actually deserve credit for acknowledging their uncertainty.”

Seth Borenstein of the AP solicited views on scientific uncertainty from experts in a wide range of disciplines, from climatology to epidemeology. Borenstein noted that scientists perceive uncertainty differently than the public tends to.

“There’s a mismatch between what scientists say about how certain they are and what the general public thinks the experts mean,” Borenstein wrote.

“That is an issue because this week, scientists from around the world have gathered in Stockholm for a meeting of a U.N. panel on climate change, and they will probably issue a report saying it is 'extremely likely' — which they define in footnotes as 95 percent certain — that humans are mostly to blame for temperatures that have climbed since 1951.

“Some climate-change deniers have looked at 95 percent and scoffed. After all, most people wouldn’t get on a plane that had only a 95 percent certainty of landing safely, risk experts say.”

“But in science, 95 percent certainty is often considered the gold standard for certainty.”

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