February’s Editorial in Nature Reports Climate Change looks over the past two months, an unnerving time for the international climate community. Once seen as one of the most esteemed scientific organizations in the world, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has suffered some serious blows to its reputation.
First, ‘Climategate’ saw thousands of emails obtained illegally from the University of East Anglia posted on the Internet. Carefully timed ahead of international climate policy negotiations, the emails showed apparent attempts by a handful of IPCC climatologists to withhold data from climate deniers and to exclude contentious information from the panel’s report. Unsurprisingly, this cast doubt on the credibility of the UN body.
In addition, over the past month, the panel has admitted that a key statistic quoted in its 2007 report — that Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035 — was in error, and its source of dubious origin.
These unfortunate events do not call into question the evidence that warming is unequivocal and that human activity is the primary cause. But they undoubtedly create confusion among the public at a time, post-Copenhagen, when the world now lacks a unified vision of the way forward for climate policy.
For the IPCC, the challenge is clear. Faced with political inertia and denialism, they must communicate their results clearly and their message constructively. The 2007 report — and the Summary for Policymakers in particular — represented a giant leap forward for science communication. For the next report — due out in 2013 — the challenge will be greater still. In trying to understand the climate system more fully, scientists could reveal greater uncertainty about the range of possible climate outcomes. At the same time, policymakers and the public will demand greater certainty so that they can plan accordingly. The climate research community recognizes this problem. Now it must make a priority of addressing it.
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