Andrew Montford

Climatology’s great dilemma

Climate science is, once again, on the horns of a very uncomfortable dilemma. Whatever the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) chooses to do in the next few weeks its decision looks set to explode in its face.

Crises are something of a feature of the IPCC. Since its First Assessment appeared back in 1990, each of the panel’s periodic pronouncements on the global climate has plunged it into controversy. In the Second Assessment of 1995, the report’s headline claim – that a ‘fingerprint’ of manmade global warming had been detected – caused uproar when it was discovered that it had been inserted into the text at the last moment. Loud allegations that the report had been doctored for political ends followed. Then, in 2001, the infamous, but scientifically peripheral Hockey Stick graph, with its claim that modern temperatures are unprecedented, was hyped by the Third Assessment as though it were conclusive evidence of a human influence on the climate. The chickens came home to roost at the time of the Fourth Assessment in 2007, when thousands of emails were leaked from the University of East Anglia, revealing the extraordinary efforts to keep evidence that the Hockey Stick was flawed out of the final report.

With the Fifth Assessment now only days away, the scientists and politicians who formulate the final report have to work out how they are going to avoid yet another crisis. To do this they need to concoct a story that will explain away a very inconvenient contradiction.

The various drafts of the report have been well leaked to the media, and it looks as though the headline stories are going to be something along the lines of ‘Science is now more certain than ever that mankind is warming the planet’ and, more controversially, ‘Most of the warming in the second half of the 20th century was down to greenhouse gases’.

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