The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently published the first major installment of its Sixth Assessment Report. It’s a big deal, but it’s not the last word in climate science.
Two more sections of the report will be published in the coming year. Taken together, they attempt to define the consensus, scientific view of where we are now in terms of climate change and global warming, and what future changes are likely to come.
But even when all three sections are out, there will be more to be said about climate science. Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo would be among the first to tell us that science is not primarily about consensus but discovery. It can take just one person with sound evidence and an argument to flip the scientific paradigm. So it’s important to read the IPCC’s report with humility and critical thinking.
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Climate analysis employs a good deal of statistical modeling and data science. It involves far more than looking out the window, no matter how alarming the weather is or whatever you think you remember about how it was “back when.”
Climate is a wickedly complex system. It involves long-term patterns, the dynamic interactions between clouds and oceans, influences from human activity and natural forces like volcanoes and solar activity, and physics, to name just a few major factors.
No one person has a mastery of all that knowledge, which makes the IPCC report a useful tool in understanding the issue. But our knowledge is always growing.
More studies continue to highlight persistent problems with climate models exaggerating warming.
That said, what does this first installment of the IPCC report say? Here are a few highlights:
- The IPCC estimates warming since 1850 amounts to 1.1°C.
- The most extreme projections for warming—those deemed “most likely” in the 2014 Assessment Report—have been downgraded to “low likelihood.”
- It finds no discernible trends for hurricanes, winter storms, floods, tornadoes or thunderstorms. It does find trends in heat waves, heavy precipitation and some kinds of drought.
Not surprisingly, these findings were scarcely mentioned in coverage of the report.
Unfortunately, politicians are all too ready to follow suit, claiming “the science” as a mandate for action and acceptance of extreme policy prescriptions. Too often they use “the science” as a shield to avoid defending what are actually policy choices or to deflect accountability for the costs of those policies.
But some of these proposed policies would cost Americans trillions of dollars and intend to fundamentally rework how Americans relate to their government. With stakes that high, debate is critical.
It might be easy for Americans, especially those without a doctorate in a relevant scientific field, to feel helpless in the melee. But here is level ground—most politicians aren’t climate scientists either.
Therefore, it’s incumbent on citizens to ask good questions of their elected representatives when they advocate for policies like the Green New Deal, subsidies for electric vehicles or regulations on electricity generation. And politicians should not be given a free pass by claiming to act on a supposed mandate of “the science,” as presented in reports like the IPCC’s.
Americans should ask: To what degree will this policy actually affect global temperatures? What will it cost, and who will bear those costs? Are there unintended consequences?
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As aptly stated by one climate scientist: “We need to remind ourselves that addressing climate change isn’t an end in itself, and that climate change is not the only problem that the world is facing. The objective should be to improve human well-being in the 21st century, while protecting the environment as much as we can.”
Regardless of what one believes about the various scientific debates, we shouldn’t be interested in policies that give a show of “doing something” but don’t actually accomplish anything. Unfortunately, the IPCC’s latest report, like its predecessors, was immediately used as a bludgeon to demand political conformity in support of massively expensive “green” policies.
That’s harmful both for scientific discovery, which depends on questioning consensus, and for the political process, which depends on genuine debate, to work out the best decision about what to do next.
This piece originally appeared in Detroit News