I’ve decided to upgrade today’s climate embarrassment to a Category 1 climate scandal. But there’s a back story to go with it.
About ten years back I organized a high level conference in Washington, with participants from Europe and Asia as well as the U.S., on the arcane subject of greenhouse gas emissions forecasting. Forget for the moment the intricacies of computer climate modeling and temperature forecasts—what estimate do you plug into the models for expected emissions for, say, the year 2050? How do your arrive at those estimates, especially for the developing world? And regardless of whether the computer climate models are any good, there is the old “GIGO” problem from Day 1 of computer science: garbage in, garbage out.
It is not as simple a question as you might think, and it isn’t just a matter of extrapolating from recent trends. I’ll spare the wonky details, except to say that when you look into climate forecasts, there aren’t just one or two emissions forecasts; there were, as of 2004, about 40 of them. Some of them were plainly absurd, projecting, for example, extremely high rates of economic growth for North Korea, among others. One of the experts who worked on the forecasts for the UN was good enough to admit candidly that some of the emissions forecasts were entirely political in their origin, because in these UN gabfests many poor nations objected to any analysis that assumed that they wouldn’t be growing at rapid rates. In other words, many of the projections (especially some of the high end ones) should be ignored.
This is preface to the story reported yesterday by National Geographic on political pressures to omit certain emissions data from the most recent IPCC climate report:
When the United Nations’ last major climate change report was released in April, it omitted some country-specific emissions data for political reasons, a trio of new papers argue, sounding a warning bell about the global politicization of climate science.
Although the underlying technical material in the IPCC’s fifth major report was widely agreed upon and published intact, “heated negotiations among scientific authors and diplomats led to substantial deletion of figures and text from the influential ‘Summary for Policy-makers,'” writes Brad Wible, an editor at the journal Science, in the introduction to three papers published Thursday.
Who would have thunk that politics might find its way into these UN reports?
Further down the piece references an open letter from Rob Stavins of Harvard University, an environmental economist I know slightly and have debated a couple of times. He’s a convinced climateer, but he thinks the IPCC process is too politicized and is broken:
I fully understand that the government representatives were seeking to meet their own responsibilities toward their respective governments by upholding their countries’ interests, but in some cases this turned out to be problematic for the scientific integrity of the IPCC Summary for Policymakers. . .
Again, I am shocked, shocked, to hear that government officials would put their own nation’s interests first in these international gatherings. But I am sure this will change by the time of the next big UN climate treaty meeting next summer in Paris. Besides, I hear Barack Obama might show up, so there’s that.