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The IPCC Guide to the Galaxy

In one of our favorite books, Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” , the entry for the Earth in the aforementioned guide reads, in its entirety, “Mostly Harmless”.  To an Earthling unhappy with the brevity of that entry, the writer confides that despite his decades of research on the topic, “they edited it quite a bit”.

Our friends (we have several) on the IPCC must feel a lot like that sometimes. Take their latest publication. The thousands of scientists on the IPCC have trawled through 5 years of peer-reviewed scientific publications on numerous aspects of climate change. They held multiple seminars, conferences and other dialogues, and wrote a very long report (2,216 pages) summarizing their conclusions.  Based on that report, a select few hundred of them then sat down with government officials to thrash out the text of the 36-page “Summary for Policy Makers”.  Then a 3–page press release was written based on that Summary . . .  and the media stories were written based on a few lines in the release.  In the end, “Mostly Harmful” would probably be as a good summary as anything actually reported.

Many, including some IPCC members, feel this entire process is unhelpful to the wider cause of understanding what to do about climate change. It plays into the media meta-story of advocates v. deniers as the most important debate, and fuels the wilder fantasies of those who believe this is all the work of a sinister conspiracy of the right/left (choose your favorite). Which, in our humble opinion, is simply a distraction.

We believe the IPCC reports need to be shorter and more focused on particular themes. Their admirable, comprehensive (and therefore, for the press, much too complex and nuanced) report on extreme weather events, published in 2012 should be the model.  The US National Academy publications are a similarly effective model that IPCC could learn from. But of course, precisely because of the media controversies, changing IPCC’s processes will be brutally hard.

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