You’ll have heard that the InterAcademy Council had a look-see at the inner workings of the IPCC (more on that below). This council, previously unknown to civilization, is, as the IPCC was supposed to be, an independent conglomeration of scientists and other large-brained individuals, spread the world over.
Now, whether the IAC is sufficiently qualified to dress down the IPCC down is debatable. But dress them down they have. In a brutal report, the IAC found that the IPCC leadership was “less agile and responsive than it needs to be” in answering it many criticisms.
The strongest recommendation was that the fellows at the top of the IPCC should only serve for limited terms. Many are interpreting this as suggesting that sex novelist Rajendra Pachauri should bow out tout de suite. But there’s no need to be coy: of course this is what the IAC is suggesting!
However, when Pachauri departs to retire to a life of penning bodice rippers, it will be no kind of political victory for climate doomsday skeptics. Pachauri was originally chosen to be the boss only because of his unquestioning loyalty to the cause and because he possessed a, let us call it, internationality that Americans or Brits do not.
Pachauri’s appointment would have been fine, but he made the mistake of assuming it was based on merit. This delusion caused all the usual symptoms, such as his holding forth idiotically on all sorts of matters of which he had not a clue.
In one recherche episode, Pachauri called another man’s work “voodoo science” because that man’s careful observations on the rate of melting of Himalayan glaciers was not consonant with the rate quoted in the IPCC report. But it turned out that the IPCC’s source for the melting rate was culled from an environmentalist propaganda brochure written by a pal of Pachauri.
So he will resign. But I repeat, this will be no victory because the UN is unlikely to make the same mistake twice. They’ll still appoint a True Believer as boss, but whoever it is will almost certainly be a scientist. The net effect will be a lessening in the comedic output of the IPCC, but that’s about it.
Beyond a shift of nameplates in the bureaucracy , it’s anybody’s guess whether the other IAC recommendations will be adopted. The IAC’s juiciest admonitions are in an appendix. Here’s one after our own hearts:
[The IPCC should] give greater attention to assessing uncertainties and confidence in [key findings]. Avoid trivializing statements just to increase their confidence…Determine the areas in your chapter where a range of views may need to be described…to form a collective view on uncertainty or confidence.
If you’re not used to reading peer reviews, I can tell you that this appendix is hot stuff. Rarely have I seen so strong a rebuke. The IAC felt it necessary to lapse into pedantry. For example, they include a table of “A simple typology of uncertainties” because they believed that the IPCC was unaware of what the word “uncertainty” meant. To illustrate “Unpredictability”, they list, “Projections of human behaviour not easily amenable to prediction (e.g. evolution of political systems). Chaotic components of complex systems.”
For examples of “Structural uncertainty”, they say, “Inadequate models, incomplete or competing conceptual frameworks, lack of agreement on model structure, ambiguous system boundaries or definitions, significant processes or relationships wrongly specified or not considered.”
Finally, “Value uncertainty: Missing, inaccurate or non-representative data, inappropriate spatial or temporal resolution, poorly known or changing model parameters.”
The IAC had to tell the IPCC that their pronouncements should not be spoken in the same tone Moses used when descending Sinai; they reminded the IPCC that “probabilistic approaches are available” and that they should consider reporting “ranges of outcomes and their associated likelihoods”. To make this complete, there’s a sarcastic lesson on rhetoric: “A 10% chance of dying is interpreted more negatively than a 90% chance of surviving.”
Folks, this is elementary! But school wasn’t over. There’s a hilarious table in which various wordings of uncertainties are mapped to numerical measures, e.g. “Very low confidence” maps to “Less than 1 out of 10 chance.” This is so basic it is like reminding a physicist that the speed of light is constant. IPCC members must be furious to be spoken to in this manner!
But the IAC wasn’t finished. The knife was already in and had already cut the vital organs, but they gave it a twist anyway, by stating, “[The IPCC should] be aware of a tendency for a group to converge on an expressed view and become overconfident in it”. About this quip Bertie Wooster would have said, “And they meant it to sting!”