Has the IPCC Outlived its Usefulness?

Rajendra K. Pachauri

Image courtesy of AP's Jacques Brinon

It is hard not to overstate the significance of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's accomplishments. Alongside Al Gore, the IPCC has done more than any individual or academic body to draw attention to the perils of global warming and to establish a scientific consensus. And it's still going strong: It just released its Fourth Assessment Report a few weeks ago, with more to come in the near future. In light of this, issuing a call for its dissolution might seem premature - if not downright asinine. But is it?

Joseph Romm, the curator of Climate Progress, recently argued in an incisive Salon piece that:

"In fact, I think that with the release of the recent synthesis report, the IPCC has reached the end of its usefulness. Anyone who isn't persuaded by that document and the general desperation of international climate scientists is unlikely to be moved by yet another such assessment and more begging . . . We could use a new definitive analysis by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences on climate science, U.S. impacts, and solutions. That analysis should also do something the IPCC doesn't -- namely, look at plausible worst-case scenarios, given that such scenarios typically form the basis for most of our security and health policies."

Indeed, it is not that the IPCC's latest report hasn't divulged any new or critical findings on climate change and its likely effects; it is just that, as Joe elaborates, the IPCC's summaries often get "watered down" to please all the stakeholders and that - despite their alarming tone - they have tended to receive less media attention than, say, the latest hot YouTube video.

Several environmental groups, such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), have essentially been articulating the same point, criticizing the IPCC for downplaying the risks of global warming - going so far as to release their own versions of the latest summaries. They blame the "line by line" vetting process that must take place before a summary is released for eliminating "vital facts and important information."

Assuming we did decide to jettison the IPCC, what scientific body would we then turn to for guidance on possible policy proposals and for the scoop on the latest studies? Romm suggests that national scientific agencies, such as the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S., would have a better chance of getting "thorough attention from the U.S. media" and other typically disinterested parties. In an ideal world, of course, we would be able to count on the incumbent administration and its science advisers to come up with a clear and ambitious plan of action - which isn't likely to happen this year or next.

Yet one might argue that the relevance of having bodies such as the IPCC - with its international and multi-faceted breadth - is that it allows us to listen to the most informed, consensus views shared by experts from around the world. It thus provides a broad set of scientific guidelines and policy recommendations that all governments can (theoretically) adhere to. And, given the current state of things, we could certainly use such a voice.

At the Bali conference, a coalition of more than 200 scientists took the unprecedented step of making an urgent call for action, warning that - in order to avoid the worst - the world should "limit global warming to no more than 2°C above the pre-industrial temperature." With some governments still actively attempting to quelch or manipulate the evidence, it may be time to move past the consensus stage.

Via ::Environmental Science & Technology: IPCC summaries called too conservative (news website), ::Salon: Desperate times, desperate scientists (news website)

See also: ::Al Gore And IPCC Panel Win The Nobel Prize, ::Climate Change Is A Threat To Global Security, Says Pachauri Of IPCC

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