Thursday, January 28, 2010

Guest post: How could the IPCC foster social learning?

by Falk Schützenmeister

The fact that relative small scientific mistakes, public misperceptions of the scientific method, and maybe the misconduct of a few can shake up a major field of international policy indicates that the institutional coupling between science and policy is too tight. The reputation of Harvard would never be at stake only because a few alumni became felons. In climate research, the outcome of international negotiations depends on a level of moral integrity among IPCC scientists that is unlikely to be found in priesthood.

At the onset of environmental science the tight coupling of technological systems and the rigidity of organizational structures were identified as reasons for low resilience and a high risk of catastrophic outcomes (Perrow). Ironically, today’s climate regime and the coupling between science and policy is an example for a high risk system where the failure of one small element (which might not even be at the core of the system) can endanger the whole.

One reason is a common misperception about the role and the functioning of the IPCC in science as well as in policy. Scientists often believe that the current deadlock in climate policy is due to difficulties to effectively communicate science to politicians (and the public). However, the IPCC has also a legitimatory function. In policy and public, the fact that a high number of scientists agree on something might count more than on what they actually agree.

The line by line approval of the Summaries for Policy Makers of IPCC reports constitutes a consensus about science (not policies) among the parties of the FCCC (governments). Nevertheless, some IPCC scientists feel uncomfortable about consensus since scientific progress is driven by scrutiny. Sure, most climate researcher identify themselves with the IPCC process and they trust the work of colleagues (cf. Bray). Nevertheless, reviewers discuss findings in their fields and in adjunct areas. They are not necessarily able to scrutinize the sophisticated findings of colleagues from other disciplines. The number of scientists who reviewed the glacier melt in the Himalayas is certainly pretty small, but it is treated as a consensus of 3000 scientists.

How could the problems of the IPCC (and climate policy) be solved? I am aware that the following ideas might contradict IPCC’s mandate under the FCCC. However, a possible reform should embrace the fact, that the IPCC is the most important source of climate change knowledge throughout society (and not only for international climate conferences).

From a theoretical point of view, looser couplings of organizational elements, disciplines, and societal domains (science and policy) are required. Flexible structures could focus different parts of the IPCC to address specific problems (e.g. fast Arctic ice melt) while uncertainty or even failure could be isolated from spreading and affecting the overall credibility of the IPCC. Social learning and experimentation requires institutional diversity (Ostrom) in order to distinguish approaches that work from such that do not. What design recommendations follow from a social learning perspective?

1. Looser connections between the IPCC assessment process and international climate negotions: The IPCC will remain the authoritative source for knowledge in international climate negotiations. However, IPCC assessments should focus more on the needs of national and local policy-makers who try to implement climate policies despite the deadlocks of international climate policy. There is a need for local knowledge and many actors already use IPCC reports. Successful local action could also positively influence the international process.

2. Loose coupling between working groups: Today’s IPCC is too big and it addresses too many questions in order to reach a scientifically grounded consensus (shared knowledge) across all working groups. At the same time, IPCC reports are not specific enough to inform action on different levels of governance. With focus on local effects of climate change and regional adaption strategies, the IPCC is likely to grow further. However, the global physical processes driving climate change are still at the center. The claim of scientific consensus and the certainty of findings should be based on WG I where they actually exist. In contrast, the assessment of the effects of climate change and mitigation/adaption strategies cannot be limited to a global perspective. Besides WG II and III, a number of specific assessments about regions and sectors will be necessary. However, the experimentation with new forms of assessments requires that they do not affect the credibility of the core assessments.

3. Installation of assessments about assessments: A situation where a relative small assessment body would summarize the basic physical principles of climate change and a number of specialized assessment institutions that would tackle specific problems would fall behind today’s achievements if there were no evaluation of different approaches. In order to use a variety of assessments as a dynamic form of social learning an assessment of assessments would be necessary. A new WG IV could have a reflexive role within the IPCC and assess the use and impact of IPCC assessments including credibility crises.


Anonymous said...

Bjorn says:

I fully support that the Assessment Reports should serve as the the basic review paper on the current knowledge of science on climate change related issues. What is really lacking, however, is efficient quality control. The scientific consensus method may lead to some strange results.

My favourite one is the fact that there are 23 climate models and that the IPCC uses the unweighted average of all 23 models for its climate projections and its confidence level estimates. On the other hand, backtesting is used for the period 1980-1999 in order to get some information of the quality of the models. To make it short, the result is devastating. While there are models that are able to model past temperatures and precipitation more or less well, there is at least one that produces simple nonsense (BCC-CM1). No single model can reproduce well the areas of high glaciers (antarctica, Greenland and Himalaya), unfortunately the regions that dominate the discussion on sea level rise. The standard deviation among the 23 models is more than 8° C in those regions -- a difference between the last ice age and the holocene...

WG IV could have an enormous impact if the diplomatic consensus type of decision making in climate modelling were to be replaced with a meritocratic type of weighting the best models. In all other scientific areas (and in finance), backtesting is a standard procedure for assessing the prediction capabilities of a model. Why not introducing this procedure in climate modelling?

Werner Krauss said...

Falk, you write:
'The fact that relative small scientific mistakes, public misperceptions of the scientific method, and maybe the misconduct of a few can shake up a major field of international policy indicates that the institutional coupling between science and policy is too tight.'

I doubt that the current scandals really do 'shake up a major field of international policy'. Instead, I think it should shake up the culture of climate science itself, for various reasons.

1) I think your above statement is partially based on a misperception of the role of science itself. The public is used to the fact that scientists permanently blame each other, and that they permanently change their opinions. Its also not news to the people that some scientists even cheat. Instead, the problem is that climate scientists want to make people believe that they, the scientists, can see the future, that they are like prophets and never fail! But far too often, there is not too much of a 'scientific method' in public statements of climate scientists; and far too often they tend to project their internal conflicts on the whole world and take it as a hostage (in predicting the end of the world and other inconvenient truths).

Thus, the problem is not only the IPCC, but the internal culture of climate science. Just read the climate blogs - it is a mixture of manhunt, smearing, ruining each others reputation...this is the current culture in climate science. This is not unusual in scientific culture; the unusual thing is only that climate science uses the media, politics and public to make their often times only internal claims.

2) Isn't it possible that climate science overrates its own role? Copenhagen did not fail because of wrong information in the IPCC report, and it did not fail because of Pachauri's conflicts of interest; it failed for purely political reasons.
And even though the IPCC lost credibility, climate policies go on. Yesterday Obama made clean energy one of his main topics in his State of the Union address. He did not even mention the IPCC; instead, he said its not about science, but about politics and economy.And I think he is right: climate is as political, economic and cultural as it is natural. Climate science tends to overrate its own role enormously; consequently, reforms should not only address the IPCC as the interface between science and politics, but it should address the culture of climate science itself. You never hear about the education of climate scientists. Is climate science still a playground for 'big men', or is its curriculum really adapted to the challenges of post-normal science? This is where reform is urgently needed, too, I guess.

Anonymous said...

It is amazing to me that you still do not understand the situation you find yourself in. Not only did these "few" not conduct themselves properly, they were THE leaders in the field. The overarching fact of this situation is that no one in the climate community recognized what they were doing for 10 years. Why? One can only conclude that Climatology is not presently capable of making any predictions with any assurance. Otherwise, the climatology community would have recognized and stopped immediately all of the misbehavior that went undetected for so long. You are at fault for letting this happen.

The IPCC does not need to change. It should not exist until you can straighten out your discipline.

Leigh Jackson said...

"The number of scientists who reviewed the glacier melt in the Himalayas is certainly pretty small, but it is treated as a consensus of 3000 scientists."

Treated by whom?

itisi69 said...

The start of your article: "The fact that relative small scientific mistakes, public misperceptions of the scientific method, and maybe the misconduct of a few can shake up a major field of international policy indicates that the institutional coupling between science and policy is too tight." already told me that Herr Schützenmeister is still in denial (to use a common word in Climate Circus) about the real situation. IPCC credibility is in shatters and will never recover to be the "the authoritative source for knowledge in international climate negotiations" you like it to be.
Since the IPCC has allowed biased climate activist organisations such as WWF, Green Peace, Friends of the Earth, Climate Action Network, Environmental Defense and the David Suzuki Foundation to be included as experts, then IPCC has excluded itself as an authoritive source for knowledge.

I'm sure people here know Gabriela von Georne and her background. She happens to be one of the reviewers.... nuff said...

Hans von Storch said...

To Werner Krauß:

Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal

Hans von Storch said...

To itisi69 - could you please describe the participation of the organizations, you listed, in a bit more detail: names, in which function, which issues, which working group of IPCC?

Making definite statements like "IPCC credibility is in shatters and will never recover to be the 'the authoritative source for knowledge in international climate negotiations' you like it to be." is your opinion, and you have every right to have this opinion and to express it. You would, however, be wiser, if you would not present your opinion as a fact. Not good for an open discussion, which is what we all want (I believe).

itisi69 said...

Yes it's my opinion (which I appreciate to be able to vent) and I'm certainly not the only one.

Let's begin with Green Peace:

Green Peace generated literature in 2007 IPCC report:

# Aringhoff, R., C. Aubrey, G. Brakmann, and S. Teske, 2003: Solar thermal power 2020, Greenpeace International/European Solar Thermal Power Industry Association, Netherlands
# ESTIA, 2004: Exploiting the heat from the sun to combat climate change. European Solar Thermal Industry Association and Greenpeace, Solar Thermal Power 2020, UK
# Greenpeace, 2004: accessed 05/06/07
# Greenpeace, 2006: Solar generation. K. McDonald (ed.), Greenpeace International, Amsterdam
# GWEC, 2006: Global wind energy outlook. Global Wind Energy Council, Bruxelles and Greenpeace, Amsterdam, September, 56 pp., accessed 05/06/07
# Hoegh-Guldberg, O., H. Hoegh-Guldberg, H. Cesar and A. Timmerman, 2000: Pacific in peril: biological, economic and social impacts of climate change on Pacific coral reefs. Greenpeace, 72 pp.
# Lazarus, M., L. Greber, J. Hall, C. Bartels, S. Bernow, E. Hansen, P. Raskin, and D. Von Hippel, 1993: Towards a fossil free energy future: the next energy transition. Stockholm Environment Institute, Boston Center, Boston. Greenpeace International, Amsterdam.
# Wind Force 12, 2005: Global Wind Energy Council and Greenpeace,, accessed 03/07/07

itisi69 said...

About the other mentioned climate activist groups participating in IPCC:

If you look at the list of participants of the Working Group III here:
you'll find three Greenpeace employees, two Friends of the Earth representatives, two Climate Action Network reps, and a person each from activist organizations WWF International, Environmental Defense, and the David Suzuki Foundation.

If you think these belong to the most authoritative climate research than I will have to disagree with that. Would IPCC accept a science-focused organization to rely on a document created by an oil company? Or would you?

Hans von Storch said...

itisi69 - this is a list of reviewers, i.e., persons who have commented on the drafts of the report, not writers. That I find not problematic, as long as the review process is open (which is with WGI the case, as far as I know) - so that Mobil OIl could also participate in reviewing.

Difficult is the usage of texts by vested interests (companies, NGOs, political parties) or the presence of representatives of such organizations in the writing (assessment) teams.

Hans von Storch said...

Thanks, itisi69, for your Greenpeace list. Which Working Group was this?

Do we get more of such lists form you? Would be good.

Opinion - certainly vent them, but present them as opinions. That makes communication easier, and more peaceful, because it is easier to agree that you mean "something" than that the "something" is actually accurate.

itisi69 said...

Herr Von Storch, every party has it's vested interests, which is perfectly acceptable when it's presented clearly and open. However, when it comes to IPCC (and the Mann/Jones cabal which was very powerful within the IPCC), you know yourself perfectly that contrarian science/opinions were succesfully blocked cq censored. This all now comes into the open for all. For the insiders it was always known already but as long as the cabal works it can be kept inside.

As for my opinion, here you overstimate me. I'm just a layman with a natural born scepticism heavily interested in the Anthropogenic Global Warming sca... sorry.. theory. I'm sure your opinion bears infinitive more weight then mine ;)

As mentioned before I greatly respect your dignity and open mind in this, for climate science, turbulent times.

"Die Wahrheit von heute ist die Lüge von morgen."

Marco said...

@itsi69 and Hans von Storch:
The references that are cited are from WGIII, notably the section of the IPCC report that really required a change in the rules to also allow non-peer reviewed material. There simply isn't much.

What itsi69 does not tell us (and probably does not know), is that this same WG also cited work by British Petrol (BP), the American Enterprise Institute, the Nuclear Energy Institute, and Shell.

Falk & Cynthia said...

Thank you for the many comments. In order to keep track of the arguments, I will add several comments. First, Werner Krauss - I almost commented on your post yesterday: Of course, the climate is a political issue. But I think you need to go a step further. Policy is not only about nice speeches and what needs to be done in order to reduce ecological risks. It is also about how to reach these goals, including hard compromises, negotiations etc. Obama's speech is really pointless here since many Republicans think the government should not be involved in economic activities at all. Since science is a corner stone in the climate regime, Copenhagen did not fail because of single statements but because of general design flaws of the whole arrangement. (tight coupling!)
I think, I have no misperception of science, I am very realistic about it. However the climate regime was based on a mythical view of science which is contra factual. And the public is now shocked that the priests drink wine and have secret lovers. I think, something like realpolitik is needed here.
I agree that the climate culture has several problems. One is its top-down structure. Knowledge should be not only produced for policy-makers but also for people at the ground who want to take action. And the knowledge of these people is valuable because they are in touch with local problems as well as with the governance structures in place.

Falk & Cynthia said...

I also want to comment on Bjorn. You are right that there should be an internal system for harder scrutiny - but as I see - there are some thoughts about it. I would go one step further. The hypothetical WG IV could deal with the perception, the use, and the effects of IPCC reports in order to produce knowledge with more practical relevance. This would help to shift the use of IPCC reports as a mean of legitimacy to a source of knowledge.

Falk & Cynthia said...

=> Anonymous 2:

1. Well, why do you spend so many lines, just to say that you are against climate policy.
2. Why do you assume that I am a climatologist? I am in fact a sociologist critically studying research organization in this field.
3. It is not THE leaders, it is some leaders. You should open the IPCC report, check the list of the lead authors and see how many of these people are actually involved in the current problems. You will see only very few. Well, Schellnhuber who is the most prominent adviser of the German government did not act wisely.

Falk & Cynthia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Falk & Cynthia said...

==> Leigh Jackson

By the climate change deniers who treat climate research as one single conspiracy.

Falk & Cynthia said...

You can certainly not take the list of reviewers as a measure for the credibility of the IPCC. The reason is simple, everyone can be a reviewer. I signed up as a PhD student in sociology and posted comments to the first chapter of WG1 report discussing the history of climate change science (some where concerned with the over-idealized view of science which is a problem for the IPCC right now). My contributions were considered and treated with respect. Every single answer to them can be find in the archives.

Why do climate skeptics do not participate more in this process? You could have pointed out the bias of the literature selection easily. The reason is pretty simple, smearing the IPCC later brings much more political gain.

This does not mean that I am in denial of manipulations since the suppression of data and findings is hard to detect within a review process.

That does not mean we live in a perfect world and the IPCC is certainly in trouble. But not because of some bad guys. Climate Policy is a human institutions with vein, power games, lies etc.

Institutions are made to keep those in check and there are severe institutional problems.

It would be nice if people would indicate whether they want to have an improved climate regime or whether they want to abandon climate policy altogether.

Lucifer said...

The reputation of the catholic church would never be at stake only because a few bishops became heretic. For example, if it became known that the pope had sex with his secretary, nobody would take notice.

Werner Krauss said...

Falk, thanks for your detailed answers, which for sure are worth to be considered! The only thing I spontaneously don't agree is your qualification of Obama's announcement as pointless. Why that? It makes a difference when a country like the US takes measures. Why should he not find a way to convince Republicans to join him; at least, nation states have experience in energy and infrastructure management, while global organizations do not have such experience.

I agree mostly with your assessment of climate science. I think the real challenge for climate science is to localize climate change; this would mean in consequence to strengthen the regional and national initiatives (instead of the fruitless attempt to create a global community).

Falk & Cynthia said...

Sorry, I did not mean that the whole speech was pointless. I just think that the underlying debates in the US go much deeper (government vs. libertarians; international engagement vs. isolationism; science vs. religion etc.). There might be better strategies to convince conservatives to engage in environmental protection as a regulatory policies. However, that might not work. Anyways, at a symposiums about climate change and lifestyle changes, I heard a beautiful argument: The deniers, conservatives, and states that block climate treaties would not be a problem at all if the people, governments, etc. who believe that climate change is a high risk (and I do) would actually act accordingly. But often they use critics as an excuse. Maybe to many resources are spent on convincing people.

itisi69 said...

The reference I used about the Green Peace et al contributions came from a website (nofrakkingconsensus) which seems to be questionable on 2nd thought. I do some further checking, until then I withdraw my former comments.

Falk, thanks for your answers. My reactions can be judged as a layman being bombarded with climate hell and doom the last decade which many "tipping points" and "90% certaincies" have been disgraced the last few months.

Hopefully the Climategate emails clyster results in a much more healthier debate.

For me I'm still not convinced people can actually regulate climate regime because there are many forcings people just cannot control.


itisi69 said...

I'm still a bit concerned about you using the "denier" word. It does put yourself automatically in the AGW camp, not sure if you want that?

Reiner Grundmann said...

Falk, I think you raise some very important points about the necessary structural reform of the IPCC. The fact that it is integovernmental is certainly counterproductive. Not so much because it leads to tight coupling -- I think here you overestimate the IPCC's influence-- but because it gives the participants the illusion that it will directly feed into government policies (and you may harbour some hope as well??) worldwide. This was the idea behind it, that whatever this panel comes up with, it will be the internationally shared consensus. The activist scientists thought they have a nice Trojan horse, and the blocking governments could use tactics to change wordings in a bizzare bargaining process. But even when the documents became more and more dramatic, they did not change government policies. So the design did not work for the activists. The institutional default condition in each society is to carry on with the current climate policy. In order to change them one needs to discuss options.

So we need a new advisory system, with much more separation between science and governments. There should be assessments, and a variety of policy options, including their consequences.
However, the funding should be much more directed at the research policy options (mitigation, adaptation, remediation) and not at the (elusive) model prediction business.

itisi69 said...

This Climategate email gives some insight about "The Future of IPPC"

"There is now greater demand for a higher level of policy relevance in
the work of IPCC, which could provide policymakers a robust scientific
basis for action".


"1. While it is true that a vast majority of the public and the
policymakers have accepted the reality of human influence on climate
change (in fact many of us were arguing for stronger language with a
higher level of confidence at the last meetings of the LAs), how
confident are we about the projected regional climate changes?

I would like to submit that the current climate models have such large
errors in simulating the statistics of regional (climate) that we are
not ready to provide policymakers a robust scientific basis for "action"
at regional scale. I am not referring to mitigation, I am strictly
referring to science based adaptation."

Falk & Cynthia said...

It is well known that climate models are not very well geared up for local predictions. The IPCC totally agrees on that. However there are other sources of knowledge and also local observations. A good example is the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment of the Arctic Council in which even observations of indigenous people are compiled and considered. Starting from the IPCC findings ACIA asks for the local meaning of global change.

In order to advise policy-makers below the global level such knowledge is very useful since it also contains hints about local opportunities for action. Of course such knowledge sources are not as precise and there are mechanisms needed that can deal with very different forms of knowledge (and grades of certainty). The precautionary principle needs to be reconsidered