Pielke and severe weather

Has the IPCC become too big for its own good?

by Allen Best

The International Panel on Climate Change has started issuing components of its 2013 report. The report has been issued every five years since 1991 and seeks to present the consensus view on climate change.

In the process, the report has ballooned in size, approaching 1,000 pages when last issued in 2007. That size itself is a problem, says Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Colorado’s  Center for Science & Technology Policy Research. In the case of the 2007 report, there were basic errors that diminished the credibility of the report and the process used to create it.

Roger Pielke Jr.

Roger Pielke Jr.

Pielke has established himself over the last decade as a contrarian of sorts, especially within the context of severe weather. He shares some views with his father, Roger Pielke Sr., a meteorologist, who was for many years the state climatologist in Colorado.

Neither Pielke disputes that the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels represents a significant problem. But the elder Pielke argues that human land-use changes play a larger role than mainstream climate scientists believe, and the younger Pielke, a political scientist by training, finds problems with scientists sometimes overstepping their bounds and the lack of fidelity of media reports to the science.

The 2007 report had various problems. It predicted the imminent decline of Himalayan glaciers—but, as it turned out, any scientific foundation. The report also cited increased damages to human infrastructure as a result of severe weather already occurring.

In a presentation in Boulder on Nov. 4, Pielke Jr. described the latter mistake about severe weather as more troubling. When coming across it, he said, he was surprised and searched for attribution. He was even more surprised to discover it was attributed to a conference he had helped organize in 2006. He remembers hearing no link between greenhouse gases to severe weather confirmed at the conference or in the papers compiled.

What happened, he learned upon investigating, was that one of the presenters had later created a report that did attribute severe weather to human-added greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Even so, in Pielke’s evaluation, that amended report lacked supporting evidence.

Worse than a simple mistake, the IPCC became defensive when informed of the erroneous information.

“We have more than a leadership problem,” he said. “It’s deeper than that.”

The real story, said Pielke, is that people are moving into harm’s way. As a percentage of global gross domestic product, insured losses have changed little. There are more people, more development along hurricane-prone seashores, but not proportionately higher losses from storms.

The 2013 iteration of the IPCC asssessment, in its section on severe weather, accurately represents the state of the science, he said. The scientific community, he said, remains deeply conflicted about weather extremes and how to report them.

While critical of the IPCC, he believes it performs a valuable function in giving government officials insights into the science about climate change that are necessary for formulating public policy. But he recommends smaller reports, instead of the documents every five years. There will still be disputes or “pathologies” within the academic and scientific communities, he said, but the mistakes will be smaller—and, he implied, there may be less of a tendency toward defensiveness.

But he also cited scientists for not stepping up and pointing out mistakes. Among climate scientists, he said, there’s too much of an attitude of “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”


About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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