Most conservatives are suspicious of the United Nations. The U.N. combines endless lofty rhetoric with an equally endless capacity for venality and corruption.
It’s the sort of organization that would have Saudi Arabia head a Human Rights Council. It’s the sort of organization that lives off of American largess and then pretends like it can order the U.S. not to reimpose sanctions on Iran.
If I’m worried that Agenda 21 is a massive plot to destroy the world’s golf courses, it’s not because I think the U.N. is too high-minded to ever try such a thing; it’s just that they are too incompetent to ever pull it off.
Unsurprisingly, some of this general skepticism carries over to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which serves as a kind of official aggregator and distiller of climate change science and research.
The simple association of climate change with the U.N. (along with Al Gore) probably explains a significant fraction of skepticism about climate change on the right.
And yet, the reports put out by the IPCC they are … mostly fine. That is, the stuff that’s actually about climate science is mostly fine.
When the IPCC strays from science into politics, the ordinary flaws of the U.N. flare up. But when you get into the scientific meat of the documents, the IPCC can actually be a pretty useful repository of information.
This can be easy to miss. The political stuff tends to be front-and-center, often contained in a “summary for policymakers” which, while not exactly Shakespeare, is more or less understandable. The scientific stuff mostly comes in hundreds of pages of bureaucratic prose larded down with citations and precise quantifications of confidence levels.
The IPCC may be the only body that defines mathematically what it means by “likely” or very likely.
For example, “A statement that an outcome is ‘likely’ means that the probability of this outcome can range from ≥66-percent (fuzzy boundaries implied) to 100-percent probability. This implies that all alternative outcomes are ‘unlikely’ (0–33-percent probability).” That’s scientifically admirable, but it doesn’t make for light reading.
But despite these stylistic issues, if you want to get a sense of the specifics of climate change, you will probably eventually find yourself consulting the IPCC. Take, for example, the IPCC’s new special report.
Part of the reason IPCC reports tend to be so unobjectionable is that most of the stuff in the reports isn’t actually from the IPCC. The IPCC doesn’t conduct original research. It collects and summarizes it. And while there are no doubt some errors or political biases that creep into the documents (especially the “summary for policymakers” given at the beginning) it tends to get the basics right.
Both critics and proponents of action on climate change use the IPCC to make their points.
In fact, many on the left view the IPCC as not going far enough when it comes to warning of the dangers of climate change. Bill McKibben has criticized IPCC reports for relying on “lowest-common-denominator conclusions” while downplaying more extreme but unlikely possibilities.
And even where the IPCC does describe risks from climate change in strong terms, the plodding style can almost make the end of the world sound boring.
For all its flaws, the IPCC is still the best game in town when it comes to aggregating climate science findings. So I will continue to rely on it, even as I curse the latest U.N. inanity.