Judith Curry: Let’s Abandon Consensus-Dogma In Favour of Open Debate
The growing implications of the messy wickedness of the climate-change problem are becoming increasingly apparent, highlighting the inadequacies of the “consensus to power” approach for decision-making on such complex issues.
IN February 2007, publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) was received with international acclaim.
The vaunted IPCC process — multitudes of experts from more than 100 countries examining thousands of refereed journal publications, with hundreds of expert reviewers, across a period of four years — elevated the authority of the IPCC report to near biblical heights. Journalists jumped on board and even the oil and energy companies neared capitulation.
The veneration culminated with the Nobel Peace Prize, which the IPCC was awarded jointly with former US vice-president Al Gore. At the time, I joined the consensus in supporting this document as authoritative; I was convinced by the rigours of the process. Although I didn’t agree with some statements in the document and had nagging concerns about the treatment of uncertainty, I bought into the meme of: “Don’t trust what one scientist says; trust the consensus-building process of the IPCC experts.”
Six-and-a-half years later, nominally a week before the release of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), substantial criticisms are being made of leaked versions of the report as well as of the IPCC process. IPCC insiders are bemoaning their loss of scientific and political influence. What happened to precipitate this change?
The IPCC was seriously tarnished by the unauthorised release of emails from the University of East Anglia in November 2009 that became known as the Climategate affair. These emails revealed the “sausage-making” involved in the IPCC’s consensus-building process, including denial of data access to individuals who wanted to audit its data processing and scientific results, interference in the peer-review process to minimise the influence of sceptical criticisms and manipulation of the media.
Climategate was soon followed by the identification of an egregious error involving the melting of Himalayan glaciers. These revelations were made much worse by the response of the IPCC to these issues. Then came concerns about the behaviour of the IPCC’s chairman Rajendra Pachauri and investigations of the infiltration of green advocacy groups into the IPCC. All of this was occurring against a background of explicit advocacy and activism by IPCC leaders related to carbon dioxide mitigation policies.
Although the scientists and institutions involved in Climategate were cleared of charges of scientific misconduct, the scientists and the IPCC did not seem to understand the cumulative impact of these events on the loss of trust in climate scientists and the IPCC process.
The IPCC’s consensus-building process relies heavily on expert judgment; if the public and the policymakers no longer trust these particular experts, then we can expect a very different dynamic to be in play with regards to the reception of the AR5 relative to the release of the AR4 in 2007.
There is another, more vexing dilemma facing the IPCC, however. Since the publication of the AR4, nature has thrown the IPCC a curveball: there has been no significant increase in global average surface temperature for the past 15-plus years. This has been referred to as a pause or hiatus in global warming.
Almost all climate scientists agree on the physics of the infrared emission of the CO2 molecule and understand that if all other things remain equal, more CO2 in the atmosphere will have a warming effect on the planet. Further, almost all agree that the planet has warmed across the past century and that humans have had some impact on the climate.
But understanding the causes of recent climate change and predicting future change is far from a straightforward endeavour.