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Kill the IPCC: After decades and billions spent, the climate body still fails to prove humans behind warming

The IPCC is in a state of permanent paradigm paralysis. It is the problem, not the solution

The IPCC is in a state of permanent paradigm paralysis. It is the problem, not the solution

The IPCC has given us a diagnosis of a planetary fever and a prescription for planet Earth. In this article, I provide a diagnosis and prescription for the IPCC: paradigm paralysis, caused by motivated reasoning, oversimplification, and consensus seeking; worsened and made permanent by a vicious positive feedback effect at the climate science-policy interface.


In its latest report released Friday, after several decades and expenditures in the bazillions, the IPCC still has not provided a convincing argument for how much warming in the 20th century has been caused by humans.

[np_storybar title=”IPCC models getting mushy” link=””]In the next five years, the global warming paradigm may fall apart if the models prove worthless. Keep reading.
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In the 1990’s, the world’s nations embarked on a path to prevent dangerous anthropogenic climate change by stabilization of the concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases, which was codified by the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) treaty. The IPCC scientific assessments play a primary role in legitimizing national and international policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This objective has led to the IPCC assessments being framed around identifying anthropogenic influences on climate, dangerous environmental and socio-economic impacts of climate change, and stabilization of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.

At the time of establishment of the UNFCCC, there was as yet no clear signal of anthropogenic warming in the observations, as per the IPCC First Assessment Report in 1990. It wasn’t until the IPCC’s Second Assessment Report in 1995 that a “discernible” human influence on global climate was identified. The scientific support for the UNFCCC treaty was not based on observations, but rather on our theoretical understanding of the greenhouse effect and simulations from global climate models.

In the early 1990’s there was the belief in the feasibility of reducing uncertainties in climate science and climate models, and a consensus-seeking approach was formalized by the IPCC. General circulation climate models became elevated to the central role by policy actors and scientists from other fields investigating climate change impacts and applications – this has in turn has elevated the role and position of these climate models in climate change research. Very substantial investments have been made in further developing climate models, with the expectations that these models will provide actionable information for policy makers.

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In 2006/2007, climate change had soared to the top of the international political agenda, as a result of Hurricane Katrina, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, publication of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, and award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and the IPCC. It was claimed that the science was settled, and that it clearly demanded radical policy and governmental action to substantially cut CO2 emissions.

There is a growing realization of the infeasibility of meeting emissions targets

Seven years later, with the release of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, we find ourselves between the metaphorical rock and a hard place with regards to climate science and policy:

• as temperatures have declined and climate models have failed to predict this decline, the IPCC has gained confidence in catastrophic warming and dismisses the pause as unpredictable climate variability

• substantial criticisms are already being made of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report as well as of the IPCC process itself; IPCC insiders are bemoaning their loss of their scientific and political influence; the mainstream media seems not to be paying much attention to the Fifth Assessment Report’s Summary for Policymakers; and even IPCC insiders are realizing the need for a radical change

• global CO2 emissions continue to increase at higher than expected rates and there is a growing realization of the infeasibility of meeting emissions targets

• failure of the UNFCCC Conference of Parties to accomplish much since 2009 beyond agreeing to establish future meetings

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• growing realization that you can’t control climate by emissions reductions

• European countries and Australia are backing away from their emission reductions policies as they realize their economic cost and political unpopularity

• increasing levels of shrillness on both sides of the political debate, with the “warm side” steeped in moral panic and hyperbole

And finally:

• the politically charged rhetoric has contaminated academic climate research and the institutions that support climate research, so that individuals and institutions have become advocates; scientists with a perspective that is not consistent with the consensus are at best marginalized (difficult to obtain funding and get papers published by “gatekeeping” journal editors) or at worst ostracized by labels of “denier” or “heretic.”

• decision makers needing regionally specific climate change information are being provided by the climate community with either nothing or potentially misleading predictions from climate models.

How and why did we land here? There are probably many contributing reasons, but the most fundamental and profound reason is arguably that both the problem and solution were vastly oversimplified back in 1990 by the UNFCCC/IPCC, where they framed both the problem and the solution as irreducibly global. This framing was locked in by a self-reinforcing consensus-seeking approach to the science and a “speaking consensus to power” approach for decision making that pointed to only one possible course of policy action – radical emissions reductions.

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The climate community has worked for more than 20 years to establish a scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. The IPCC consensus-building process played a useful role in the early synthesis of the scientific knowledge. However, the ongoing scientific consensus-seeking process has had the unintended consequence of oversimplifying both the problem and its solution and hyper-politicizing both, introducing biases into both the science and related decision making processes.

The IPCC needs to get out of the way so that scientists can better do their jobs

We have wrongly defined the problem of climate change, relying on strategies that worked previously with ozone, sulphur emissions and nuclear bombs. While these issues may share some superficial similarities with the climate change problems, they are “tame” problems (complicated, but with defined and achievable end-states), whereas climate change is “wicked” (comprising open, complex and imperfectly understood systems). For wicked problems, effective policy requires profound integration of technical knowledge with understanding of social and natural systems. In a wicked problem, there is no end to causal chains in interacting open systems, and every wicked problem can be considered as a symptom of another problem; if we attempt to simplify the problem, we risk becoming prisoners of our own assumptions.

The framing of the climate change problem by the UNFCCC/IPCC and the early articulation of a preferred policy option by the UNFCCC has arguably marginalized research on broader issues surrounding climate variability and change, resulting in an overconfident assessment of the importance of greenhouse gases in future climate change and stifling the development of a broader range of policy options. The result of this simplified framing of a wicked problem is that we lack the kinds of information to more broadly understand climate change and societal vulnerability.

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Paradigm paralysis is the inability or refusal to see beyond the current models of thinking. The vast amount of scientific and political capital invested in the IPCC has become self-reinforcing, so it is not clear how to move past this paralysis as long as the IPCC remains in existence. The wickedness of the climate change problem makes it difficult to identify points of irrefutable failure in either the science or the policies, although the IPCC’s insistence that the pause is irrelevant and temporary could provide just such a refutation if the pause continues.

In any event, there is a growing realization that neither the science nor policy efforts are making much progress. Particularly in view of the failure of climate models to predict the stagnation in warming, perhaps it is time to step back and see if we can do a better job of understanding and predicting climate variability and change and reducing societal and ecosystem vulnerabilities.

Specifically with regards to climate research, for the past decade most of the resources have been expended on providing projections of future climate change using complex Earth system models, on assessing and interpreting the output of climate models, and the application of the output of climate models by the climate impacts community.

The large investment in climate modeling, both in the U.S. and internationally, has been made with the expectation that climate models will support decision making on both mitigation and adaptation responses to climate change. So, are these complex global climate models especially useful for decision makers? The hope, and the potential, of climate models for providing credible regional climate change scenarios have not been realized.

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With the failure of climate models to simulate the pause and regional climate variability, we have arguably reached the point of diminishing returns from this particular path of climate modeling – not just for decision support but also for scientific understanding of the climate system. In pursuit of this climate modeling path, the climate modeling community — and the funding agencies and the policy makers — have locked themselves into a single climate modeling framework with a focus on production runs for the IPCC, which has been very expensive in terms of funding and personnel. An unintended consequence of this strategy is that there has been very little left over for true climate modeling innovations and fundamental research into climate dynamics and theory — such research would not only support amelioration of deficiencies and failures in the current climate modeling systems, but would also lay the foundations for disruptive advances in our understanding of the climate system and our ability to predict emergent phenomena such as abrupt climate change.

As a result, we’ve lost a generation of climate dynamicists. We have been focused on climate models rather than on climate dynamics and theory that is needed to understand the effects of the sun on climate, the network of natural internal variability on multiple time scales, the mathematics of extreme events, and the predictability of a complex system characterized by spatio-temporal chaos.

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Securing the common interest on local and regional scales (referred to as “adaptive governance”) provides the rationale for effective climate adaptation strategies. This requires abandoning the irreducibly global consensus-seeking approach in favour of open debate and discussion of a broad range of policy options that stimulate local and regional solutions to the multifaceted and interrelated issues surrounding climate change.

The IPCC needs to get out of the way so that scientists and policy makers can better do their jobs.

The diagnosis of paradigm paralysis seems fatal in the case of the IPCC, given the widespread nature of the infection and intrinsic motivated reasoning. We need to put down the IPCC as soon as possible – not to protect the patient who seems to be thriving in its own little cocoon, but for the sake of the rest of us whom it is trying to infect with its disease. The precautionary principle demands that we not take any risks here.

Judith A. Curry is Chair and Professor, School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Institute of Technology.
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