Science and salesmanship

Eying the astonishing progress made by the climate lobby this year, it’s tempting to give most of the credit to one Albert Gore, Jr. But while the ex-veep’s evangelism was pivotal in bringing global warming into the mainstream, it’s worth noting that he shared this year’s Nobel prize with a group of less stardust-sprinkled activists: the boffins of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

While the former next president was spreading the global-warming gospel, the UN’s scientists were painstakingly sifting and weighing research from around the world, producing the definitive account of the evidence for climate change. Their reports made Al Gore’s slideshows credible; it’s largely thanks to the IPCC that it’s become so hard for climate change deniers to defend their position.


This week, the group is meeting in Valencia to summarize its work, condensing 2,500 heavily annotated pages into a single slender pamphlet. The abridged document will be the climax of the panel’s efforts: it’s all most policymakers will get round to reading, and is likely to shape the climate debate for years to come. Crucially, too, it will set the tone as delegates gather in Bali next month to map out a post-Kyoto climate accord.

That puts the IPCC in a difficult position. The panel’s strength is its scientific rigor, not its salesmanship; it is staunchly apolitical, cautious in its estimates, and denies its imprimatur to any research that has not yet been thoroughly scrutinized by the scientific community. That makes it the perfect body to pen an exhaustive account of the scientific consensus - but leaves it less well-suited to producing a hard-hitting, easily digested policy brief.

The UN’s climate chief said this week that failing to express the urgency of action would be “criminally irresponsible”; sadly, it’s unlikely such forceful language will make it into the report itself. Rather than moving the ball forward, leaked drafts seem muted and anticlimactic, recapping already-dated research, eliding some of the panel’s most important previous findings and lagging behind the current climate debate. 

The IPCC’s scientists admit that since they won’t consider research published within the past year, their report will radically underestimate the rate of climate change and provide an overly optimistic assessment of the chance of reversing the damage. Some go as far as suggesting that the IPCC has lost relevance and should be disbanded. That’s too strong; there will always be a place for the careful assessment of climate science. But with Bali looming, greens could be forgiven for longing for a little more passion. Perhaps somebody could page Al Gore?

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