“Political Science”

Also worth reading in the weekend Journal is an article by Philip Stott, professor emeritus of biogeography at the University of London, in which he describes concisely the way the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) works, areas for further climate research, and the misconceptions that have colored the climate change debate in recent years — and which underlie carbon emission-limitation efforts like the Kyoto Protocol. First, on the IPCC:

Unfortunately, the IPCC represents science by supercommittee, as rule 10 of its procedures states: “In taking decisions, and approving, adopting and accepting reports, the Panel, its Working Groups and any Task Forces shall use all best endeavors to reach consensus.” I bet Galileo would have had a rough time with that.

In this context, it is vital to remember that science progresses by skepticism and by paradigm shifts: A consensus early last century would have given us eugenics. Moreover, the IPCC does no original research, nor does it monitor climate-related data; its evidence is instead from selected secondary sources. But, above all, this supercommittee is more political than is often recognized, rule three firmly reminding delegates that: “documents should involve both peer review by experts and review by governments.”

On the obsession with carbon emissions:

Throughout the history of science, monocausal explanations that overemphasize the dominance of one factor in immensely complex processes (in this case, the human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases) have been inevitably replaced by more powerful theories.

On areas for further research:

Worryingly for the IPCC’s “consensus,” there is a counterparadigm, relating to the serious uncertainties of water vapor and clouds, now waiting in the wings…A key piece of research in this emerging new paradigm was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A (October 2006): “Do electrons help to make the clouds?”

Using a box of air in a Copenhagen lab, physicists managed to trace the growth of clusters of molecules of the kind that build cloud condensation nuclei. These are specks of sulfuric acid on which cloud droplets form. High-energy particles driven through the laboratory ceiling by exploded stars far away in the galaxy — cosmic rays — liberated electrons in the air, which helped the molecular clusters to form much faster than atmospheric scientists have predicted. This process could well explain a long-touted link between cosmic rays, cloudiness and climate change.

And on the biggest misconception surrounding the whole debate:

The inconvenient truth remains that climate is the most complex, coupled, nonlinear, chaotic system known. In such a system, both “doing something” (emitting human-induced gases) and “not doing something” (not emitting) at the margins are equally unpredictable. What climate will we produce? Will it be better? And, if we get there, won’t it, too, change?

This is the fatal flaw at the heart of the whole global-warming debacle. Climate change must be accepted as the norm, not as an exception, and it must be seen primarily as a political and economic issue, focusing on how best humanity can continue to adapt to constant change, hot, wet, cold or dry.

There’s more. Read on. (Subscription required for Wall Street Journal link.)