Like it or not, climate change driven by human action is, and will continue to be, one of the biggest challenges that we as a species face. With wide-ranging economic and ecological implications, the world’s top political brass decided to take action and thus the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed. The question many of you may be asking is: what is it that the IPCC actually does and why you may not have seen or heard anything recently. Fair questions. Though IPCC received the Nobel Peace Prize along with Al Gore in 2007, of late it has been in the news for less than stellar reasons and seems to be asleep at the wheel while facing a colossal disinformation campaign against man-made climate change.
Before we delve further into what the IPCC is, what it does, and what it should consider doing, I would like to mention that I will not indulge in discussing the raw climate data in this article. However, I will point out the cases of acid rain and ozone depletion as two examples of human activity affecting our planet to a large degree and how we were able to at least mitigate the damage by acting in time. As an aside, it is also worth mentioning that planetary climate is what mathematicians call a ‘chaotic system‘. This is a system whose progress and outcome can vary wildly if there is even a tiny (at the time) and seemingly insignificant change in the initial condition(s) of that system. Essentially, this means that the system is extremely difficult to accurately predict beyond a relatively short time period (refer to your local weather forecast for an easy example). However, modern instrumentation, telemetry, and statistical methods have vastly improved long term climate predictions and – in a twist pulled from a Greek tragedy – many of these were pioneered by the Exxon Mobil Corporation.
The goals of the IPCC are to: assess relevant information pertaining human-induced climate change, impacts of human-induced climate change, and options for adaption and mitigation. The panel does not carry out any original research of its own, nor is it in charge of actively monitoring instrumentation or collecting raw scientific data. Instead, it conducts a ‘scientific review’, combing the published peer reviewed and non-peer reviewed literature to provide an assessment of the topic. Thousands of scientists volunteer (!) to help write and evaluate the assessments and reports the IPCC puts out. Thus, on paper, this body is the supreme international politically and scientifically recognized authority on climate change.
Notwithstanding its impressive credentials, the IPCC remains a passive political advisory body. One of the main reasons for this is that climate science has become very political, an area many scientists and scientific bodies tend to avoid like the plague.
The disinformation campaign was revealed by some very helpful leaked documents and the large amounts of money being poured into the fight by the oil industry and tycoons like the Koch brothers. Manipulating public opinion against the cold, hard facts through campaigns like this is not a new tactic and remains a big stain on the likes of Thomas Edison, whose selfish war against AC current set back modern energy delivery systems by decades and ruined the life of Nikola Tesla. Likewise, the tobacco industry has a long history of manipulating medical data and promoting pseudo-science to counter the very apparent and very real effects of smoking.
The IPCC must lose its timidity and utilize the best tool in its arsenal to counter the propaganda and the increasingly prevalent and revulsive use of mercenary scientists aka PhDs for hire. It needs to embark on a proactive, large-scale public education campaign, especially in North America. Where such an education campaign could have helped massively was during the ’climate gate’ controversy (read: the climate gate non-issue) that is being used as propaganda to this day. The interests engaged in the disinformation dissemination seized the opportunity to start a smear campaign; using quotes they did not understand and while having no insight into the scientific method that goes into research like this. External investigations into the incident were conducted by eight different international committees, all found no evidence of fraud or misconduct and the scientific consensus remained unchanged.
The overall recommendations posed by the committees urge the IPCC engage in the same proactive behaviour I would also like to see: to inform the public of the methods used, to foster public understanding of the hard science behind the policy, and to make data more open and accessible. An educated and knowledgeable public will create upward pressure to act on governing institutions and industrial interests and can hopefully force some follow through on recent treaties; a powerful policy shaping tool. This is why one of the main objectives of this disinformation campaign is to skew the scientific consensus since studies have shown that people are more likely to accept and respond to a fairly united scientific opinion than to a significantly divided one.
In the end, the IPCC is facing a choice: either engage with the public and assert themselves, or continue to be passive, and – like our old friend Exxon – end up paying the piper at a later time.