This work is in the Public Domain.
Jessica Dickinson Goodman
16 February 2010
A Flawed But Functioning Relationship
In The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change: A Guide to the Debate, Drs Dessler and Parson try to correct the misconception that there is significant debate in the scientific community about the fundamentals of global climate change. In the process, they explore how science enters the political climate change debate, and the influence of climate change skeptics on the public’s perception of that science. Those skeptics demand an examination of the effect of politics on the scientific debate, particularly in the drafting process of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s politician-readable 2007 Synthesis Report. Though the IPCC’s work is limited by scientific uncertainty, its conclusions—on the direction of climate change, its causes, long-term trends, and likely impacts—are convincing.
Dessler and Parson argue that the science of climate change enters the political debate in a distorted manner, partly because the media systematically underreports consensus to focus on controversy in an attempt to present a balanced view of the debate. In skewing the climate change debate to accommodate “extreme” scientific views the media has created the appearance of a greater range of uncertainty than actually exists and given political voice to skeptics without scientific proof. Because of an ill-informed media and aggressive climate change skeptics, the science of climate change enters the political debate through a mirror, darkly.
Climate change skeptics use the politics of the global climate change debate in the scientific community to argue that the conclusions of the IPCC’s reports are tainted if not invalid. Dr S. Fred Singer argues with the conclusions of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, calling the evidence that humans are causing global climate change “spurious and based mostly on selective use of data and choice of particular time periods”. That his is a conspiracy theory becomes clear when he defines the Kyoto Protocol:
[T]he Kyoto Protocol is a radical, ecology-based initiative for launching economic and social polities that threaten personal freedom, economic growth, and national sovereignty; it would also result in a major transfer of wealth from the industrialized nations.”
He argues that the climate change scientists of the IPCC and the Kyoto talks prostituted science for their political goals. It is difficult to take claims like this seriously when they attack the scientific basis of climate change and motives of climate change scientists in forums outside of the scientific community: climate change skeptics rarely submit their beliefs to the rigorous scientific review and debate they find necessary for others’ views.
According to Edwards and Schneider, Singer’s argument that the IPCC’s process was corrupted is factually incorrect. Dessler and Parson say that “the IPCC assessments are widely regarded as the authoritative statements of scientific knowledge on climate change” and Edwards and Schneider likewise believe the process was not corrupt, but could be altered to head-off future criticism. The IPCC assessments do have one clear limitation: they systematically emphasize the inherent uncertainties of the science of climate change. Whether with error bars on graphs, strictly-defined phrases to indicate certainty, or “Key Uncertainties” paragraphs accompanying every summary, any given statement in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report of 2007 has a defined level of uncertainly associated with it. This is “how science works” at its best.
Even with these uncertainties, the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report leads to the following conclusions: 1) the world is getting warmer, 2) this change will hurt hundreds of millions of people by the 2050s, 3) humans cause the warming, 4) humans can mitigate and adapt to the warming, and 5) humans should fight climate change with suite of solutions. These solutions could include carbon restrictions (cap-and-trade or tax system), technological improvements to help the developing world develop more cleanly (like India’s Nano), and social-behavioral changes (limiting consumption of goods that produce greenhouse gases). Whatever the combination of policy changes and technological innovations, the suite of solutions would be best implemented by regional blocks—ASEAN, NATO, the GCC, the AU, the EU—who would enforce binding goals on their member states in accordance with globally-defined minimums. The relationship between science and politics in the global climate change debate is imperfect, but most climate change scientists (in spite of the protests of climate change skeptics) are working with politicians to preserve the future of the planet.