Politics Watered Down IPCC Climate Report: Scientists

Some scientists who helped produce the latest report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have said that the science was watered down to appease government representatives involved in approving the final draft of the report.

Even in its softened version, Friday’s report forecasts scenarios over the coming decades that many find unthinkable: three billion people without adequate water supply, agriculture and forests decimated around the globe, melted glaciers and ice sheets, one-third of the world’s species driven to extinction and major global regions ravaged by floods, violent storms and storm surges. The report also forecasts an unprecedented environmental refugee crisis as major populations get displaced.

The report confirmed that the hardest-hit nations will be poor developing countries who lack the resources to adapt to climate change, not the industrialized economies who have produced the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions that led to the crisis. Poor regions within wealthy countries may also be left more vulnerable to climate change.

The future of New Orleans, which was nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, may well depend upon federal assistance to construct Category 5 levees and restore the marshlands along Louisiana’s southern coastline.

Owing to the gravity of the findings, and the urgent need for governments to take action, some scientists have found the political interference unacceptable.

“The science got hijacked by the political bureaucrats at the late stage of the game,” said John Walsh, professor of climate change and chief scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ International Arctic Research Center, who co-authored the report’s chapter on polar regions and vowed never to help produce another IPCC report.

The IPCC reports are consensus documents written by the world’s leading climate scientists, yet every effort is made to convince governments around the world to adopt the reports prior to their release. This political reconciliation process has resulted in a softening of some of the scientific findings as drafts are finalized.

Yet other scientists argue that the right balance was struck between science and politics, and that getting governments on-side before the document’s release bolsters the ability of the report to get policy makers to take action to combat climate change.

Joel Smith, former deputy of the US Environmental Protection Agency told the PBS NewsHour, “The report is actually adopted by the governments that participated in this meeting line by line. So they get to work with us on the science. So they can’t just simply say, ‘It is a report of the scientists,’ and walk away from it. They have bought into it.”

Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University, agreed with Mr Smith that the political process led to a more effective result. He also emphasized that scientists retained the right of veto.

“It’s informative,” said Professor Oppenheimer on NewsHour. “It lays out for governments, what are the vulnerabilities? Where are there going to be changes that they have to get prepared to be ready to adapt to? Where are there changes to society, like in agriculture or health, that are so threatening, that they ought to cut emissions in order to avoid those sorts of changes?”

In May, the next report of the IPCC will recommend policies and economic measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

While the scientific community is all but universally united behind the IPCC consensus, there will almost certainly be further political wrangling before the recommendations are implemented in some countries, including the United States.

Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.), former chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and now its ranking Republican, told Fox News, “The IPCC process more closely resembles a Democrat or Republican Party convention platform battle over the specific wording of an issue plank, not a scientific process.” He added, “the latest IPCC summary will surely spawn another round of media alarmism and hype.” Senator Inhofe once famously labeled climate change “the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”.

Yet the new head of the environment committee, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), hit back: “This powerful report confirms the very real dangers that global warming poses for us all.” Senator Boxer has held six hearings on climate change since taking over the helm in January and has now invited the Bush administration to respond to last week’s US Supreme Court decision that the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases. It is not yet clear how the Bush administration will respond.

The Bush administration, which has been accused of routinely censoring climate change reports produced by US government scientists, has so far maintained that it will not cap greenhouse gas emissions and will not participate in the Kyoto Protocol. President Bush walked away from the protocol in 2001, saying that it would “wreck” the US economy and was unfair because it did not impose stringent enough controls on developing countries.

Meanwhile, the House Science and Technology Committee will also hold a hearing on April 17 to review the IPCC’s findings. Committee chair Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) said the report packed a “powerful and sobering message” and that governments need to act now to reduce the vulnerability of their most at-risk communities.

“For the first time, the world’s top scientists are able to confidently attribute changes in a wide variety of ecosystems in all parts of the world to human-induced global warming,” said Mr Gordon in a statement. “We can neutralize some of the impact by better adapting our society to these changes. We should identify our vulnerable communities and begin working to reduce these vulnerabilities.”

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