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New Climate Report, Old Battles

Andrew Freedman @ 9:52 AM

This is a big week for climate change news with the scheduled release of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report in Paris on Friday.

The report is coming out with all of the surprise of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign announcement, largely because the IPCC is a loose organization comprised of approximately 2,000 international scientists who work within the spirit and framework of scientific openness rather than a media embargo.

Jason Samenow's Forecast

Forecast Confidence: Medium-HighToday: Mostly cloudy with morning rain showers possibly mixing with snow before ending. Highs around 40.
Tonight: A 30% of snow showers or flurries with a dusting possible in a few spots. Lows in the mid to upper 20s.
Tomorrow: Partly cloudy and brisk, with highs in the mid 30s.

A detailed week ahead forecast will appear tomorrow.

Frenzied speculation has erupted over what the organization that brought us the understated 1995 line, "The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate," will bring the world this year.

All signs point to a more strongly worded report that narrows the range of uncertainty of future climate change and more forcefully places the blame on mankind for most of the warming seen since the latter part of the 20th Century. It is also expected to starkly detail the already visible effects of warming on natural systems from Arctic ice cover to the behavior of plant and animal species. As an Associated Press headline declared last week, it may be the "smoking gun" on climate. Then again, isn't the real smoking gun a tailpipe?

Although far from perfect, the IPCC should be paid far more heed than classifying it as just another scientific study that says there's a problem with climate change. This is the mother of all scientific studies on climate change. This is a double tier review of the already peer reviewed literature on the subject.

To use a grade school analogy, it's as if hundreds (up to 2,000 by some estimates) of scientists gathered together to write a book report detailing what we know and don't know about climate. Their source? All of the peer reviewed literature on the topic. Daunting task, eh?

It's worth noting that none of the IPCC scientists contributing to the reports are paid for their efforts and their work goes through a double-tier peer review process involving both scientists and government officials. For example, each line in the "Summary for Policy Makers" section must be approved by government representatives.

The IPCC is widely viewed as one of the most exhaustive and comprehensive scientific collaborations ever conducted on any scientific issue, period. The group has thus far produced three reports since 1990 (the fourth being released on Feb. 2), each of them refining the uncertainties surrounding the human influence on climate.

It will be fascinating to watch the report play out in the global marketplace of ideas.

Already allegations of political bias have been hurled at IPCC Chairman Rajendara Pachauri. The IPCC is a strictly scientific body, it does not advise governments on policy, and therefore he has stepped into murky territory by advocating for unspecified actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He was quoted last week telling Reuters, "I hope this report will shock people, governments into taking more serious action as you really can't get a more authentic and a more credible piece of scientific work."

Some have interpreted that as advocating for specific policies to combat climate change, which is not within the realm of the IPCC. A fierce debate on politics and the IPCC has long been raging in the blogosphere, most notably over at the University of Colorado's Prometheus blog.

Based on Pachauri's statements it is clear that he likely favors deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. This general view puts him squarely in the mainstream of the climate science community, and he has said it is based on the IPCC's own scientific conclusions. It's difficult to read the IPCC's Third Assessment Report in 2001 and not conclude that actions need to be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for example.

Ironically, in an obvious intrusion of politics into the workings of the IPCC, in 2002 the United States pushed for Pachauri to chair the group after souring on former chairman Robert Watson due to his efforts to publicize the threat of climate change.

Watson, currently the chief scientist for the World Bank, had this warning when I interviewed him for the nonpartisan publication Greenwire in 2005: "Pachauri, like myself, has to stay politically neutral."

"Otherwise, he will open himself to attack the same way I was attacked."

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