March 2011

Why we need the IPCC

By Peter Miesler

On Feb. 19, the U.S. House voted 244- 179 to kill funding for the International Panel on Climate Change because, they claim, we can’t trust them and we don’t need their stinking information anyways. (The bill has yet to pass the Senate.)

To appreciate why such thinking is shortsighted, we need to understand what the IPCC actually is. First, we should recognize that weather knows no borders and that international cooperation among meteorologists began way back in 1873 with the founding of the International Meteorological Organization. In 1950 this evolved into the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

In the early 1960s our first weather satellites blasted into orbit, followed every few years by improved generations of satellites. Climatologists were beginning to learn about our atmosphere and weather dynamics like never before. What used to be a discipline taught out of a few textbooks exploded in complexity and volume.

In response, universities, governments and non-governmental organizations throughout the world launched dozens, eventually hundreds, of Earth and climate study programs.

At the same time, the physics of CO2 made it clear that increasing levels of atmospheric CO2 would lead to increasing global temperatures. This conclusion was, and is, unavoidable given that greenhouse gases inhibit loss of warmth – like a blanket. By increasing atmospheric CO2 we’re basically making our planet’s blanket thicker. It’s simple, well-understood physics.

Where things get complex is in mapping the full scope of the cascading effects following from the atmosphere’s increasing temperature and humidity. This is where theories and models come into play, but theories and models need to be tested and refined – something the increasing flood of incoming data was making possible.

Reports and data sets were piling up right and left. This material needed to get organized. How else could the knowledge become publicly available and useful? Even the fabled G7, leaders of the free world, recognized the need when they initiated a process that in 1988 culminated with the WMO and the United Nations Environment Program establishing the IPCC.

The new group’s charge was to “assess the scientific, technical and socioeconomic information that relates to human induced climate change.” It seemed like a thoughtful thing for world leaders to do.

Did you know the IPCC doesn’t do research? Its duty is “to organize the assessment and summarizing of research” done throughout the world. The process is open to the review and critique of anyone competent to keep up with the formidable science.

In itself, the IPCC is only a few offices and ten employees. Beyond that, periodically hundreds of scientists donate their time when helping develop and publish reports. The IPCC sets up meetings and symposiums where scientists get together to exchange information. At these meetings the full spectrum of current published reports is reviewed, including claims from qualified skeptics; the IPCC can’t help it when facts and due science consistently reveal gross deficits in the voracity of skeptical claims. After formal vetting, the IPCC publishes its compilations of the available climatology.

IPCC reports are acknowledged by the world’s practicing climatologists to be the authoritative assessment of the current state of understanding. Now, this doesn’t mean the IPCC scientists are perfect, but they know more about the science than anyone else. That alone demands their expert assessments receive more respect than politically driven misrepresentations.

I question why Republicans resort to imaginary global conspiracy theories. Why put so much effort into demonizing thousands of hard-working scientists who compile their studies in good faith? The uncomfortable consequences of the truth are no justification for ignoring the evidence. Politicians need to get beyond reactionary emotionalism and start to learn about the reality of the heat-engine that is our climate... and our life-support system.

Watching the way “skeptical” groups such as the Marshall Institute, SPPI, Heartland and their media echochamber attack the IPCC brings to mind those long-ago “fence wars” when old-time cattle barons refused to recognize that their world was getting smaller and that fences and cooperation were the unavoidable waves of the future.

The IPCC offers an open platform for the nations of our shrinking planet to work together in coming to grips with what the science is discovering. Republicans should replace their campaign of willful ignorance and denial with a good-faith effort to learn about climate realities. For this we need an international coordinating agency, just like the IPCC.

Peter Miesler writes from Durango, Colo.