I listened with great interest to the audio recording of the SEJ panel discussion described in David Roberts’ recent blog post.
Much of the argument there can be distilled down to one simple question:
Where can I find credible answers to scientific questions about climate change?
Here’s the scientific community’s answer: look to the peer-reviewed scientific literature. A strong consensus there is the closest thing we have to well-founded knowledge, and it is entitled to substantial deference in policy debates. And if a reporter wants to write about what the “scientific community” thinks, this consensus is what they should report.
The problem with this advice is that it’s generally too difficult and time-consuming for those without specialist training to digest the peer-reviewed literature themselves. Thus, non-scientists need to rely on a scientific advisory process to tell them. The process of synthesizing, evaluating, and communicating the peer-reviewed literature to inform a policy or decision process is called scientific assessment.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the primary body responsible for international scientific assessments of climate change. Since its establishment in 1989, the IPCC has undertaken three full-scale assessments of climate change — in 1990, 1995, and 2001 — as well as many smaller and more specialized reports.
Each of the full assessments is a huge undertaking. The reports involve hundreds of scientists from dozens of countries as authors and peer reviewers, including many of the most respected figures in the field. These groups work over several years to produce each full assessment, and their reports are subjected to an exhaustive, publicly documented, multi-stage review process by expert scientists, the member governments, and the general public.
And the review does not end with release of the report. Immediately after publication in 2001, the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report was reviewed and validated by an expert panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences, and its conclusions have been supported in policy statements by the American Geophysical Union, American Meteorological Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and others.
In the end, the 2001 IPCC report is perhaps the most thoroughly vetted document in the history of science. In view of this, the IPCC assessments are widely regarded as the authoritative statements of scientific knowledge on climate change. Anyone who hopes to be educated on climate change needs to be familiar with the IPCC 2001 Working Group I summary for policymakers (PDF).
Note that the key to the success of the IPCC reports is the rigorous process. Scientific results gain credibility by passing peer review, and then being subsequently re-tested and multiply verified by the scientific community. IPCC reports take these peer-reviewed analyses and synthesize them. The IPCC reports are then themselves peer-reviewed. To the extent that “truth” about climate change exists anywhere, it is here.
One of the SEJ panelists [ed. note: Marc Morano] implored listeners to go to the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works web page to get information on climate change. Don’t. Unlike the IPCC reports, this web page has not been produced by a rigorous IPCC-like process. It is not based entirely on peer-reviewed literature, but instead refers to press releases and blogs. And it has not been reviewed by independent scientists in ensure that it accurately reflects the peer-reviewed literature. In other words, it is not a credible representation of the science.
Because the IPCC reports are written about every five years, they are not always completely up-to-date. Thus, it is not always possible to get an accurate view of rapidly evolving scientific issues from the IPCC assessments. But to the extent feasible, reporters, policymakers, and the general public should go the IPCC reports to get the “straight dope” on climate change.