How to Fix the IPCC: Replace it With Wikipedia?

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In the wake of a series of flaws, human and otherwise, found surrounding Climate Change 2007 (aka the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report), suggestions are emerging about how to fix the beleaguered scientific conglomerate.

Five such recommendations are being laid out in tomorrow’s issue of the journal Nature. They range from establishing an independent International Climate Agency (ICA) staffed full time by 200 climatologists to replace the IPCC’s largely government-nominated volunteer authors, to simply reaffirming the IPCC’s initial guidelines for peer review, which Thomas Stoker of the University of Bern in Switzerland argues have worked very well for over two decades, and do not need fixing.

In the department of the painfully obvious, Jeff Price of the World Wildlife Federation points out that a review process which produces an assessment report once or twice a decade is woefully out of touch with a 24-hour news cycle, not to mention the pace of our fossil fuels-based global economy, which is what’s causing this whole climate change thing in the first place:

Finally, the current period between assessments is too long. One option would be for the IPCC, or another body, to produce an annual review, assessment and synthesis of the literature for policy-makers (for example, three annual review volumes with a synthesis chapter in each volume) prepared by experts in the field. Even waiting a year seems like a long time these days, but science shouldn’t be rushed, no matter what’s trending on Twitter. Price’s suggestion is a good one.

An even more intriguing — and perhaps incendiary — idea comes from John R. Christy of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, a lead author on the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report and noted climate skeptic. He suggests that the IPCC has itself become an “echo chamber” for unilateral thinking on how human activity is affecting the climate. He writes:

The IPCC selects lead authors from the pool of those nominated by individual governments. Over time, many governments nominated only authors who were aligned with stated policy. Indeed, the selections for the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report represented a disturbing homogeneity of thought regarding humans and climate. Selected lead authors have the last word in the review cycle and so control the message, often ignoring or marginalizing dissenting comments. ‘Consensus’ and manufactured confidence ensued.

That’s laying it on a bit thick, but point taken. How transparent is the IPCC, really? And being the seat of scientific authority on global climate change, shouldn’t it be as transparent and readily accessible as possible? He goes on to call for a “Wikipedia-IPCC” entity to be set up that would allow average people to peer into the vast machinery of climate science.

This would solve a major problem with climate science today — as of now, very few people fully understand the mechanics of how humans are changing Earth’s climate. This is partly the science media’s (read: my) fault. It’s our job to examine and accurately distill complex science and then disseminate it to the public. The fact that there is a highly politicized “controversy” going on right now reflects poorly on the collective job we’ve done thus far, despite a lot of reporters’ best efforts.

Literally thousands of individual research efforts have led us to conclude that human beings are changing Earth’s climate at an unprecedented rate. We should be way past the squabbling stage by now.

But the IPCC hasn’t helped much, either. Issuing 3,000-page edicts about climate change isn’t exactly the best way to sway public opinion one way or the other. Turning the issue into a sensationalist feud involving accusations of conspiracy, as the “skeptical” crowd has done, works much better.

So lots of people are left with a shallow, “he said, she said” understanding of a terribly deep and important subject. A small hole gets poked in scientists’ side of the argument — a great example is the recent revelation that Himalayan glaciers aren’t melting nearly as fast as the IPCC said they were — and suddenly the entire body of evidence for human-induced climate change gets put on trial. That doesn’t make sense, but it reflects how difficult it is for just about anyone who isn’t a climatologist to grasp the intricacies of the science. That goes for reporters, politicians, and Joe Six Pack alike.

It doesn’t have to be this opaque. The case for human-caused global warming is incredibly strong. But by having a monolithic scientific body ruling from on high about climate science, we are making it easy for climate “skeptics” to go around making wild claims like “warm temperatures will be better for plants and crops!”

An idea like that is completely wrong, but it’s intuitive. So intuitive, in fact, that scientists looked into it and are still looking into it: see here and here. Turns out, warming temperatures do a lot more harm to plants and crops than good. Again, the science is complex, but the information is out there. We just need to make it easier for people to get at. A “Wiki-IPCC” is a great way to do that.