Entries tagged with “IPCC”.
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Wed 17 Aug 2011
I’ve been at this blogging thing for a little over 13 months, and on twitter for maybe nine months. I’ve found both venues tremendously productive – I feel like I have a whole new community to which I belong that has helped to expand my horizons and change some of my perspectives on development and aid. Nearly every day I learn something from the folks I am connected to via these social media – and that is the highest praise I can offer anyone or anything. I get bored easily, and when I am bored I get cranky. My wife thanks you for keeping me interested and amused.
So, after 13 months I think I have a sense of the landscape around these here development/aid parts . . . and I am stunned to realize there is something missing. How is this blog the only one I know of that engages both development and global environmental change at roughly equal depths? Well, this one and Global Dashboard, sort of . . . I do like Global Dashboard, though.
Now, I can see why the aid/relief (as opposed to aid/development focused – see my parsing below) blogs really don’t spend a ton of time on climate change – mostly, they are coming from the front lines of work, the sharp end of the implementation spear, as it were. Folks are caught in the immediacy of response to disaster, or buried in the myriad small tasks that can completely overwhelm staff at the implementation end of a recovery project. There is an existential quality to these blogs, because there is an existential quality to that existence. I can understand this.
Then there are the aid/development blogs – those that are focused on thinking about the long-term transition from poverty to something better for the global poor. Yes, aid is part of how we address this challenge, but really development is about long-term social, economic and political transformation. It does not unfold in rapid manner, and therefore lends itself to more protracted musings. Further, because aid/relief is focused on an acute situation, there is a short time horizon for planning and thinking – ideally with some sort of handover to long-term development programs, though we all know this does not happen as often or as smoothly as anyone would like. Aid/development, on the other hand, has a much longer time horizon – the intervention, ideally, should be producing results on a generational timescale (project reporting requirements aside, of course). Yet even on these blogs, I see very little attention being paid to climate change or environmental change – though these are processes that are likely transforming the very future worlds we are planning toward with our development projects and policies.
Here’s the thing: both the relief and development communities need to be thinking about global environmental change. Period.
Today, my thoughts for the aid/relief blogs and thinkers – and I offer this with genuine sympathy for their situations as acute responders who are overburdened by various administrative requirements: climate/environmental change is not somebody else’s problem. Nobody wants to hear this when they are on the front lines, as it were, but how we do relief and recovery has tremendous implications for global environmental change . . . and of course these changes will shape a lot of relief and recovery going forward. I know that most relief agencies start from the mandate of saving lives – everything else is secondary to that. I respect this . . . but it does not exclude the idea of thinking about and addressing environmental issues in their work. If we are serious about saving lives, lots of lives, we’d better get ahead of the curve in thinking about future response needs – what is going to happen, and where. For example, we expect to see ever-greater climate variability over the next several decades, which means that we are going to see less predictable weather, and perhaps more extreme weather events, in many places. While there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the timing of these events and the ranges of variability we might see, we are already coming to understand where some of the most acute changes are taking place (a lot of them in Africa, sadly) – and we can plan our resources for those areas. At the same time, we see fisheries collapsing around the world, with huge impacts on the diets and well-being of onshore communities – we know exactly where these events are happening, and we know exactly why, so we certainly can plan for this slow onset emergency.
As we think about recovery programs, we will have to do more than put it back as it was (the common mandate) . . . we will have to help build something that has the flexibility and resilience to adapt to a changing future. Neither of these efforts requires a fundamental rethinking of relief and recovery work, just some will to spend a few minutes BEFORE a disaster happens to think through how to address these challenges.
More difficult is thinking through the impact of our relief and recovery efforts on the global environment. What we use for temporary shelters, how we move and dispose of rubble, where we procure food aid, all of these things and much more result in varying levels and types of environmental impact. When we are busy saving lives in the here and now, I understand it can be hard to think about these issues – but many times we botch this part of the relief work, creating long-term environment and health issues that end up costing lives. Our recovery work often recommends new land uses and agricultural strategies, which have ecological and greenhouse emissions ramifications. We often suggest new livelihoods practices, which involve the use of new natural resources, and therefore introduce new environmental impacts with uncertain long-term ramifications. Someone needs to do an accounting of how many lives are saved in the immediate post-disaster setting by ignoring these issues, and how many are lost over the longer term by the impacts of ignoring these issues. I am willing to wager that there are many cases were the long-term losses exceed the short-term saved . . . mostly because I am not all that convinced that considering such issues will really slow things down that much if we have decent forward planning. This holds true even for the greenhouse emissions – I wonder how many extra tons of carbon we put out unnecessarily each year because we don’t consider the greenhouse implications of our relief/recovery work? Further, I wonder if those emissions are contributing in a meaningful way to the climate change trends that we see globally, or if they are just tiny noise in a giant ocean of emissions. If these emissions are the latter, then I think we are free to ignore them . . . but I don’t see anyone presenting that data.
So, to summarize for my aid/relief colleagues, despite your completely overtaxed, over-mandated and over-paperworked lives, you need to be reading blogs like Global Dashboard, Climate Science Watch, and RealClimate (OK, RealClimate is probably too technical). You need to become aware of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and familiarize yourself with the Working Group 2 report (human impacts) – it gives you the scientific community’s best assessment of what the coming challenges are, and where they will occur. When the Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation goes public, that will be a crucial tool. All the IPCC stuff is free for download, and written in relatively clear language (well, clear compared to the journals). The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment might be useful, too – check the Current States and Trends report. And, failing that, keep reading this blog – even the posts on climate change. You’ll find them useful, I swear.
Next up: the aid/development argument: seriously, I need to go over this? Fine, fine . . .
Mon 15 Aug 2011
Posted by Ed under Adaptation, Climate Change, Delivering Development, environment, Food Security, Livelihoods, migration, policy, sustainable development
Comments Off on Much of the scientific case for climate change, in a single graphic
This graphic, from Skeptical Science, is just awesome. I spend a good bit of my time thinking about climate change and its impacts on the global poor – mostly how we might address both global poverty and climate change, maximizing synergies and minimizing trade-offs between these efforts. I’ve been a lead author of two major global environmental assessments (the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and GEO-4) and I am now a review author of the IPCC’s AR5. Despite all of this, I find that people still question my understanding of climate change – they want me to be deluded by false data, or somehow motivated by another political agenda that I can only accomplish through an environmental hoax. In short, they want me to be either stupid or a liar. Not that anyone will say that to my face, of course, but that is really what it boils down to.
So, I greatly appreciate when someone comes up with a means of communicating what we know about the changing climate that is both simple and clear. In one post, Skeptical Science has managed this. Everyone should take a look and have a quick read. First, the graphic:
Second, the explanation of the graphic:
1) If greenhouse warming is taking place, the stratosphere should cool while the troposphere warms (heat is being trapped in the troposphere). Check.
2) If greenhouse warming is taking place, nights should warm faster than days, as the nighttime radiation of heat into space will be limited by the greenhouse effect. Check.
3) For similar reasons, if greenhouse warming is taking place, winters should warm faster than summers. Check.
4) If greenhouse warming is taking place, and #1 is true, the troposphere/stratosphere boundary should rise as the warmer troposphere expands relative to the stratosphere. Check.
5) If greenhouse warming is taking place, out of the total carbon we find in the atmosphere, a rising percentage will be fossil carbon. There is really only one way for a lot of fossil carbon into the atmosphere, and that is burning fossil fuels (remember, oil, natural gas and coal come from the decomposition of long-dead animals). Check.
6) If greenhouse warming is taking place, the oceans should be warming up overall, not shifting heat around. Check.
In short, every theoretical predictor of the greenhouse effect is being realized in empirical measurement – again, not models, but the actual instrument record. So, unless folks are willing to argue that all thermometers, weather satellites, weather balloons, and tools for measuring atmospheric chemistry are wrong or somehow perverted to a hoax, there is no empirical basis to argue that greenhouse warming is not taking place – nor is there much of an argument to be made, given the rising presence of fossil carbon in the atmosphere, that humans have nothing to do with it . . .
Time to start dealing with reality, instead of denying it. What is happening in the global climate is affecting how we do development – or at least it should be. Changes in the global climate have manifest in various environmental shifts that in turn are impacting livelihoods, migration decisions, and the food security of the global poor. I’ll address this in a subsequent post . . .
Tue 31 May 2011
Andrew Revkin has a post up on Dot Earth that suggests some ways of rethinking scientific engagement with the press and the public. The post is something of a distillation of a more detailed piece in the WMO Bulletin. Revkin was kind enough to solicit my comments on the piece, as I have appeared in Dot Earth before in an effort to deal with this issue as it applies to the IPCC, and this post is something of a distillation of my initial rapid response.
First, I liked the message of these two pieces a lot, especially the push for a more holistic engagement with the public through different forms of media, including the press. As Revkin rightly states, we need to “recognize that the old model of drafting a press release and waiting for the phone to ring is not the path to efficacy and impact.” Someone please tell my university communications office.
A lot of the problem stems from our lack of engagement with professionals in the messaging and marketing world. As I said to the very gracious Rajendra Pachauri in an email exchange back when we had the whole “don’t talk to the media” controversy:
I am in no way denigrating your [PR] efforts. I am merely suggesting that there are people out there who spend their lives thinking about how to get messages out there, and control that message once it is out there. Just as we employ experts in our research and in these assessment reports precisely because they bring skills and training to the table that we lack, so too we must consider bringing in those with expertise in marketing and outreach.
I assume that a decent PR team would be thinking about multiple platforms of engagement, much as Revkin is suggesting. However, despite the release of a new IPCC communications strategy, I’m not convinced that the IPCC (or much of the global change community more broadly) yet understands how desperately we need to engage with professionals on this front. In some ways, there are probably good reasons for the lack of engagement with pros, or with the “new media.” For example, I’m not sure Twitter will help with managing climate change rumors/misinformation as it is released, if only because we are now too far behind the curve – things are so politicized that it is too late for “rapid response” to misinformation. I wish we’d been on this twenty years ago, though . . .
But this “behind the curve” mentality does not explain our lack of engagement. Instead, I think there are a few other things lurking here. For example, there is the issue of institutional politics. I love the idea of using new media/information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) to gather and communicate information, but perhaps not in the ways Revkin suggests. I have a section later in Delivering Development that outlines how, using existing mobile tech in the developing world, we could both get better information about what is happening to the global poor (the point of my book is that, as I think I demonstrate in great detail, we actually have a very weak handle on what is going on in most parts of the developing world) and could empower the poor to take charge of efforts to address the various challenges, environmental, economic, political and social, that they face every day. It seems to me, though, that the latter outcome is a terrifying prospect for some in development organizations, as this would create a much more even playing field of information that might force these organizations to negotiate with and take seriously the demands of the people with whom they are working. Thus, I think we get a sort of ambiguity about ICT4D in development practice, where we seem thrilled by its potential, yet continue to ignore it in our actual programming. This is not a technical problem – after all, we have the tech, and if we want to do this, we can – it is a problem of institutional politics. I did not wade into a detailed description of the network I envision in the book because I meant to present it as a political challenge to a continued reticence on the part of many development organizations and practitioners to really engage the global poor (as opposed to tell them what they need and dump it on them). But my colleagues and I have a detailed proposal for just such a network . . . and I think we will make it real one day.
Another, perhaps more significant barrier to major institutional shifts with regard to outreach is the a chicken-and-egg situation of limited budgets and a dominant academic culture that does not understand media/public engagement or politics very well and sees no incentive for engagement. Revkin nicely hits on the funding problem as he moves past simply beating up on old-school models of public engagement:
As the IPCC prepares its Fifth Assessment Report, it does so with what, to my eye, appears to be an utterly inadequate budget for communicating its findings and responding in an agile way to nonstop public scrutiny facilitated by the Internet.
However, as much as I agree with this point (and I really, really agree), the problem here is not funding unto itself – it is the way in which a lack of funding erases an opportunity for cultural change that could have a positive feedback effect on the IPCC, global assessments, and academia more generally that radically alters all three. The bulk of climate science, as well as social impact studies, come from academia – which has a very particular culture of rewards. Virtually nobody in academia is trained to understand that they can get rewarded for being a public intellectual, for making one’s work accessible to a wide community – and if I am really honest, there are many places that actively discourage this engagement. But there is a culture change afoot in academia, at least among some of us, that could be leveraged right now – and this is where funding could trigger a positive feedback loop.
Funding matters because once you get a real outreach program going, productive public engagement would result in significant personal, intellectual and financial benefits for the participants that I believe could result in very rapid culture change. My twitter account has done more for the readership of my blog, and for my awareness of the concerns and conversations of the non-academic development world, than anything I have ever done before – this has been a remarkable personal and intellectual benefit of public engagement for me. As universities continue to retrench, faculty find themselves ever-more vulnerable to downsizing, temporary appointments, and a staggering increase in administrative workload (lots of tasks distributed among fewer and fewer full-time faculty). I fully expect that without some sort of serious reversal soon, I will retire thirty-odd years hence as an interesting and very rare historical artifact – a professor with tenure. Given these pressures, I have been arguing to my colleagues that we must engage with the public and with the media to build constituencies for what we do beyond our academic communities. My book and my blog are efforts to do just this – to become known beyond the academy such that I, as a public intellectual, have leverage over my university, and not the other way around. And I say this as someone who has been very successful in the traditional academic model. I recognize that my life will need to be lived on two tracks now – public and academic – if I really want to help create some of the changes in the world that I see as necessary.
But this is a path I started down on my own, for my own idiosyncratic reasons – to trigger a wider change, we cannot assume that my academic colleagues will easily shed the value systems in which they were intellectually raised, and to which they have been held for many, many years. Without funding to get outreach going, and demonstrate to this community that changing our model is not only worthwhile, but enormously valuable, I fear that such change will come far more slowly than the financial bulldozers knocking on the doors of universities and colleges across the country. If the IPCC could get such an effort going, demonstrate how public outreach improved the reach of its results, enhanced the visibility and engagement of its participants, and created a path toward the progressive politics necessary to address the challenge of climate change, it would be a powerful example for other assessments. Further, the participants in these assessments would return to their campuses with evidence for the efficacy and importance of such engagement . . . and many of these participants are senior members of their faculties, in a position to midwife major cultural changes in their institutions.
All this said, this culture change will not be birthed without significant pains. Some faculty and members of these assessments want nothing to do with the murky world of politics, and prefer to continue operating under the illusion that they just produce data and have no responsibility for how it is used. And certainly the assessments will fear “politicization” . . . to which I respond “too late.” The question is not if the findings of an assessment will be politicized, but whether or not those who best understand those findings will engage in these very consequential debates and argue for what they feel is the most rigorous interpretation of the data at hand. Failure to do so strikes me as dereliction of duty. On the other hand, just as faculty might come to see why public engagement is important for their careers and the work they do, universities will be gripped with contradictory impulses – a publicly-engaged faculty will serve as a great justification for faculty salaries, increased state appropriations, new facilities, etc. Then again, nobody likes to empower the labor, as it were . . .
In short, in thinking about public engagement and the IPCC, Revkin is dredging up a major issue related to all global assessments, and indeed the practices of academia. I think there is opportunity here – and I feel like we must seize this opportunity. We can either guide a process of change to a productive end, or ride change driven by others wherever it might take us. I prefer the former.
Thu 28 Apr 2011
Posted by Ed under Delivering Development, development, policy
Comments Off on Right tool for the job
Sasha Dichter has an interesting post about marketing and the poor – my initial reaction was annoyance, as I grow weary of the gratuitous academia-bashing that takes place in some corners of the aid world. The post is sullied by a few needless kicks to the academic straw-man that I found off-putting. But, digging past that, I found myself largely in agreement with two big points.
First, Dichter raises and then dismisses an all-to-common frustrating assumption (that ties into one of my posts yesterday about the appropriation of qualitative research and findings by economists):
Ivory tower development practitioners don’t respect the poor, think of them as inanimate beneficiaries, and so practitioners don’t take real needs and aspirations into account.
As he implies, this attitude is neither useful nor really accurate – it doesn’t get us down the road toward explaining why things go wrong. I made the same point about development agencies and workers in Delivering Development:
The vast majority of people working for development organizations are intelligent and good-hearted. They care deeply about the plight of the global poor and labor each day on projects and policies that might, finally, reverse the trends of inequality and unsustainability that mark life in much of the world . . . If these agencies and individuals are, by and large, trying their hardest to do good and have billions of dollars to work with, why are they failing?
So, moving forward with that sense of kinship, I found his next point spot on:
Ivory tower development practitioners are crappy marketers.
Enought with the “ivory tower” bashing, Sasha – you are obscuring a really good point here. Way back last summer, when I got myself embroiled in a bruhaha over how members of the IPCC were supposed to communicate with the press that eventually made its way into the New York Times via Dot Earth, I found myself having email conversations with Rajendra Pachauri (who was actually very gracious and engaged). In the course of our exchanges, I argued exactly the same point Sasha is making, but in the context of how we message information about climate change.
I am merely suggesting that there are people out there who spend their lives thinking about how to get messages out there, and control that message once it is out there. Just as we employ experts in our research and in these assessment reports precisely because they bring skills and training to the table that we lack, so too we must consider bringing in those with expertise in marketing and outreach.
I’m not sure how well I was heard on this, though they do have a head of outreach in the secretariat now . . .
In short, good point Sasha. Now, could you go easy on the ivory tower bashing while making it? Believe it or not, many of us know about this problem and would love to work with people with the expertise to fix it.
Mon 21 Mar 2011
The other day I posted on the need to reorient how we think about relief work, especially disaster risk reduction (DRR), if we are to connect relief to development, and DRR to adaptation. Well, for those who share my concerns, I have good news. I’m on the US Government review panel for the IPCC’s Special Report on Extreme Weather Events (SREX), which means I just got four second order drafts of chapters for the report. They are brutally long and detailed . . . and they are fantastic. They are an amazing effort to link disaster risk reduction (DRR) and the way that relief folks think about the world to adaptation and the way development people think. I can’t excerpt the report yet (not for circulation, and besides, not yet out of the review process), but I think it is safe to say I can shelve the report I thought I was going to have to co-author with a colleague at work about the DRR-to-adaptation link. We’ll just condense this into a few pages and make it something the agency and missions can wrap their heads around.
Seriously, those in academia will be able to teach from this report – and to be honest, it should be required reading for anyone employed by one of the large agencies that does both development and relief – and that includes all of those who work for “implementing partners.” How often can you say that about an assessment report?
I’ll post when the document goes public – I have no idea what the timeline is, except that we are managing the comments on the second order draft, which typically means we are getting down to the end of the process.
Sun 10 Oct 2010
I recently had an e-mail exchange with Rick Piltz over at Climate Science Watch (I link to them regularly, and if you are not familiar with the site, you should check it out – it is an activist site that does very good work) about the whole Cucinelli circus. At the end of that exchange, Rick mentioned that with the upcoming IPCC plenary the question of Patchauri’s leadership was once again on the table. This got me thinking . . . and I shorthanded an answer to him that I think I can expand on here.
For those not neck-deep in the world of climate change, Rajendra Pachauri is the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is the authoritative scientific body working on the issue of climate change – it is empowered to review the existing literature and evidence (it does not do its own research) and present what amounts to a summary of our best understanding of what is happening to the global climate and why it is happening. (full disclosure: I have been appointed to the IPCC for this round as a review editor – basically, I will manage the peer-review process for one of the chapters).
The IPCC has come under fire quite a bit – in my opinion, mostly because the scientific story of climate change is getting clearer and clearer, and it is not a happy story. However, there have also been screwups – for example, some of you may have heard how a completely unrealistic assessment of glacier melt in the Himalayas somehow got through review into the last IPCC report (this melt is important, as it tells us how much flooding to expect downstream (i.e. northern India and Bangladesh, among other areas) in the near term, and how much the river flows of the region will decrease once the glaciers have largely melted (potentially creating significant food crises in the same areas). I wasn’t completely freaked out by this error – it is large document that is hard to manage, but the review process is very comprehensive. It’s just not realistic to expect a review, compiled by hundreds of scientists and reviewed by hundreds more as well as representatives from the participating governments (including the US), to come together flawlessly in a reasonable timeframe. However, when this popped up, the handling of it was botched – it was more or less the classic error: instead of identifying, acknowledging and fixing the error, at first the IPCC was seen to be stonewalling and trying to defend an undefendable statement. At one point, Pachauri issued a remarkably tone-deaf statement in which he effectively called India’s Environment Minister “arrogant” and dismissed the Indian Government’s report which seemed to contract the IPCC findings. Even if the IPCC report had been correct in its claims, this could have been handled better. However, the IPCC claims were wrong, and the Indian report was closer to the truth . . . which makes this a disaster. The whole event badly damaged the legitimacy of the IPCC in some people’s eyes, and was fodder for those who would deny the role of human beings in climate change. It was a PR disaster, really – the overall science of the report is, in my opinion (and it is an informed opinion) quite solid. If nothing else, note that as the models of climate get more sophisticated, their results are mapping ever closer to observed reality . . . and the models are predicated on widely accepted understandings of the causes of climate change brought forth through exercises like the IPCC assessments. Still, it was bad.
Add this to the fiasco from this summer (in which I’m afraid I was a visible participant), where the IPCC secretariat, in Pachauri’s name, issued guidance to members of the IPCC on how to interact with the press. The letter was astonishingly poorly worded to sound like those of us on the IPCC were not to speak to the press at all, when what was meant was that we were not to represent the entire IPCC report by ourselves to the press (in other words, we can speak to the press and say “in my opinion . . .” and be fine, but we cannot say “The IPCC says/believes/thinks . . .” because we do not speak for everyone on the IPCC). The meaning of the message was completely innocuous, but the initial wording was very unclear, and set off something of a firestorm.
So, does tone-deafness qualify as a reason to throw the chairman under the bus? Well, if you think that the chairman’s job is to be a media spokesperson, maybe it is. But if the chair is to run the larger IPCC process, I don’t think replacing Pachauri changes anything – it’s just finding a scapegoat to make it look like the panel has been reformed or something – which I strongly object to, as I don’t think the IPCC needs reform. The process is sound, the author selection is sound, the data is sound (yes, I know some people have issues with the data, but the vast majority of the scientific community does not – so I am going with them until such time as I see new evidence – though I remain open to new evidence, as our understanding of the climate as a complex system is incomplete, at best). So replacing Pachauri might actually be read as an admission of guilt or problems with previous IPCC reports that I do not think exist – there is no systematic rot here.
Besides, this round of the IPCC has already started – the authors are selected, and the first plenary will meet soon. So changing the chair now will do nothing but create administrative confusion. And the importance of replacing Pachauri rests on the assumption that the chair has a lot of power – and the post does not, in the grand scheme of things. In the end, the IPCC is an intergovernmental process, which means that the diplomatic process in large, key countries like the US greatly constrain and shape what the IPCC can do – probably more than the chair can. You’ll notice an absence of calls for replacement from the diplomatic community, which tells you what they think. More to the point, Pachauri still has his job – if any major country had an issue, he would be out. For an illustration, take a look at what the Bush administration did to Bob Watson, the previous chair of the IPCC. The Administration withdrew support for him (and there is documentary evidence to suggest that they did so because ExxonMobil really wanted him gone) and that was that.
So, in the end I vote to keep Pachauri in place. I think he is sincere in his efforts to get outreach right, both in terms of his own statements and in terms of the dissemination of the IPCC reports. He knows the process. And the governments are, for now, backing him, so all of the demands for removal are going nowhere right now. That said, I fear he may be one more public gaffe away from someone in the diplomatic world getting fed up and demanding a replacement . . . and that would not be good for the IPCC process during this assessment report.
Sat 4 Sep 2010
Posted by Ed under Climate Change, environment, policy
Comments Off on Still not quite getting it . . .
I’ve gotten a bit of attention for this blog by commenting on my frustrations with the IPCC’s relationship to the media. Andy Revkin has a great post on his Dot Earth blog at the New York Times on the latest iteration of this issue. Revkin argues:
“Here’s the vital step: The panel would do well to cultivate, rather than restrict, contact between its authors and reporters in poor countries. There is a glaring need for the panel and related institutions — the United Nations Environment Program and World Meteorological Organization — to facilitate informed media coverage of climate risks, both natural and human-driven, in poor places. This is nowhere more pressing than in sub-Saharan Africa, where exposure to climate-driven hazards, particularly drought, is acute even now, let alone with whatever shifts may come through the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. (And keep in mind that populations in the region are projected to double by 2050, greatly increasing exposure to climate-related hazards.)”
I couldn’t agree more. What spurred this commentary from Revkin was a request for help from a Nigerian journalist, who wanted to contact African scientists on the IPCC but couldn’t. Revkin circulated this call to a number of people, including me – so I was fortunate to be included on the group emails that he includes in his post. I offered a number of comments, but one seems pertinent to the issue of media relations. While several people on the email immediately moved to get this information to the journalist, the new media officer for the IPCC, Isabel Garcia-Gill, seemed to be slowing down this process. When Nick Nuttall, the senior press officer for the United Nations Environment Program, asked if she could provide an updated register of national expert climate scientists from across the key and relevant disciplines for the media, Garcia-Gill responded:
“So far we are going to keep that list at the Secretariat so that all requests come through the media and communications team. We cannot yet post it on the internet, not before the authors are media trained. But of course, you will be informed.”
I responded to this comment in an email to Revkin:
“I was a little bothered by Isabel’s response to Nick – basically, she reaffirmed her and her organization’s right to gatekeep “their” experts. This does not build our credibility or our legitimacy. I am not at all convinced by claims that the authors need to be media trained – they just need to make it clear they speak for themselves, and not the larger processes to which they belong. We need to hear the different voices in this process, and the different foci they might bring to these assessments – otherwise, we run the risk of the problem I mentioned earlier – we get African voices parroting the same lines as those of us from advanced economies, which does nothing to move us forward on issues of adaptation and mitigation.”
Thanks to Revkin for working this concern into his post, near the end. We’re getting better, but institutional cultures seem hard to overcome . . .
Mon 30 Aug 2010
Yep, the InterAcademy Council more or less stated that the overall findings of the IPCC are not in question. However, they did raise some interesting issues with regard to structure and leadership that should be taken seriously. Admittedly, I have selfish reasons for this – as the review editor for one of the chapters of AR5, how the IPCC chooses to deal with comments and suggestions during the review process will have a very large impact on my life and workload starting in the summer of 2012 . . .
Mon 30 Aug 2010
While I have written on this blog about the IPCC’s need to be more transparent in its workings, there comes a point where the constant barrage of reports and studies of previous IPCC findings becomes a serious problem. Yes, another report, this time about the issue of glaciers in the Himalayas in the previous IPCC assessment report (AR4). Despite fairly intense efforts to discredit AR4 – coming under the heading of “climategate” (people saying dumb things, and sometimes not so dumb things that were willfully misconstrued, on e-mails that were stolen from a server at a major climate research center) and Himalayagate (where the working group I recently joined relied on a bit of non-peer reviewed literature from an otherwise reputable source – called grey literature in scientific jargon – that turned out to be wrong), the reports on AR4 (yep, reports on the report) have yet to question the overall findings of the IPCC to this point. Some see this as evidence of a conspiracy, where the inquiries into the IPCC and its findings are already corrupt and unable to come to independent conclusions. Personally, I have a bit of difficulty believing in such a wide-ranging, well-coordinated conspiracy. Maybe, just maybe, the findings are as close to valid as we can verify under current knowledge. Maybe?
Anyway, my complaint here is not really with yet another inquiry into the IPCC – I’d bet my house that the inquiry will not challenge the larger findings of AR4. However, when all that ever reaches the news is a constant barrage of reports on the findings of inquiries into supposed misdeeds on the part of the IPCC, it is hard to blame the general public for doubting the validity of its findings.
All of this goes back to a much earlier post that got a lot of attention, especially considering how remarkably simple its central point was: we need to be very transparent in what we do going forward. That, and as Bob Watson, former head of the IPCC and a colleague from the Millennium Assessment and GEO-4, noted about the “Himalayagate issue”:
“To me the fundamental problem was that when the error was found it was handled in a totally and utterly atrocious manner.”
Yep. The IPCC, and indeed most major environmental assessments, really need to get comfortable with the idea that sometimes we will be wrong – that is the nature of knowledge, let alone science – and we need to start engaging the professionals when it comes to PR. I have it firsthand from Pachauri that the IPCC is fully engaged in such an effort (PR, that is), and has been for some time. Good. We recruit scientific experts for their special abilities, but somehow we resist recruiting PR people? To quote the physics Nobelist Erwin Schroedinger, “If you cannot – in the long run – tell everyone what you have been doing, your doing has been worthless”. To take it another step, if we cannot honestly and clearly communicate what we do and don’t know, and when we get things wrong, than whatever we have done right will be lost in the maelstrom.
Oh, and can we get a new tag for scandals? Himalayagate? Really? Could we find a more odd combination of geography to cram into a single word?
Sat 10 Jul 2010
Well, it has been an eventful day – the blog has been in existence for something like three days, and I’ve already been blown up by traffic over a post. Which, of course, is better than complete silence from the blogosphere. However, I am not one to subscribe to the idea that there is no such thing as bad publicity, so I wanted to clarify a few things.
First, from my perspective the evidence for anthropogenic climate change is very, very clear. This is NOT to say that all debate about the subject is over – after all, the climate is a tremendously complex system that we cannot know fully under existing methods (unless someone here has the means to locate every molecule in the atmosphere, and record their state, vectors and velocities simultaneously . . . oh, and then do the same for the oceans, land, and all life on earth, as the atmosphere interacts with all of that) – so we work in ever more refined approximations (the models of which, by the way, continue to converge with observed reality as we refine them, a strong sign that our approximations are at least on the right track). That leaves room for error, and surely we are making some errors now that will have to be corrected over time. Then again, there is room for error in our understanding of gravity, but I have yet to hear a convincing argument for trying to fly from my roof. Remember, the scientific method never proves anything – all you can ever do is fail to disprove something so often that it becomes very, very likely that you accurately understand whatever it is you are testing.
That said, I am not a climate scientist. I do understand the physics of climate change reasonably well, as I have had to pick up quite a bit in the course of my research and teaching. I also understand modeling reasonably well – I even sat in on a colleague’s graduate seminar on biogeographic modeling to refine my knowledge base. But again, I am not a climate scientist. So I am not going to dedicate a lot of blog space to the nuances of climate science, not when far more qualified people run outstanding blogs on the subject (check some of the sites in my sidebar). Those are the correct fora for such discussions. This, I hope, will be a forum for the discussion of the intersection of development and global change thought broadly – both economic and environmental change.
Second, the question of why I wrote the post in the first place. Contrary to Steve Bloom’s comment (whose comments were generally quite good), there was no unintended irony in my posting a complaint about IPCC communication that would become fodder for the climategate crowd. When I received that letter, I read the first two paragraphs congratulating me on my appointment to the IPCC and though “how nice”, and then my stomach dropped when I read the third paragraph (the focus of my post). If there is one truism about e-mail, once you hit “send”, it is out there for everyone to see. I knew immediately that it was only a matter of time until this letter, and its poorly-worded paragraph, was in the hands of people who already mistrusted the IPCC, to be used as yet another attack on the process. In my mind, it came down to this – should the complaint come from someone with credibility in the global change community, who clearly wants the IPCC to succeed, and who can frame the complaint around the idea of failed communication strategies (which is really what is at issue here), or should I wait until someone with the opposite agenda unloaded on the entire process? I believe I made the right choice.
Third, I think it is important to note that by the time Mickey Glantz posted my comments on his blog (which is great reading) and forwarded my post to Andy Revkin at Dot Earth, Revkin already had a copy of the letter. In other words, Mickey and I were not the only ones concerned with this paragraph – we’re just the ones who allowed ourselves to be named. I believe that by jumping in, Mickey and I helped shape the discussion of this paragraph, and moved it down a productive path toward a discussion of how we interact with the media and the general public. It is of some interest to note that by mid-day Saturday, all of the IPCC WG II members had been e-mailed a guide to interacting with media (Revkin posted a copy on his site). The guide is pretty polished – in other words, they had this ready, but had not yet circulated it. I cannot say that this little firestorm caused the secretariat to send this out, but its existence actually supports my complaint – the organization actually has very reasonable public outreach guidelines in place that do nothing to curtail our freedom to interact with the media or the public. But the letter made it seem like things were quite the contrary.
Hopefully this is clarifying. Or entertaining. Or something in between. Please resume your regularly scheduled websurfing.