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Sunday, November 2, 2014
Enough With The Wile E. Coyote Global Warming Game All Ready,
The United Nations in 1988 entrusted the future of civilization to a loosely confederated, all-volunteer band of Earth scientists and economists. This coterie has a long, bureaucratic name with no memorable abbreviation. It was charged with taking the temperature, so to speak, of the whole planet and advising governments on how big a problem they had their hands. Turns out, a big problem.
Early next week the group drops the last of four massive tomesthat together make up its fifth report in a quarter century. In essence, next week's edition is a synthesis of the thousands of pages of synthesis that started coming out last fall.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's scientific reviews land every six years or so, like the anvil that falls on Wile E. Coyote's head from time to time. The IPCC issued its first multi-volume, encyclopedic review of Earth systems science in 1990. By 1996 they'd found "a discernible human fingerprint on global climate." They'd found the enemy, and it was us.
The question is, do we really need these massive reports, with little new transformative information, that very few people read?
Reform of the group has been an evolving discussion for several years, and it may lead to smaller, more frequent reports on important topics and better accessibility. Many governments like the IPCC's comprehensiveness, but most also feel that the policymaker summaries "should be more readable," according to this overview of options.
Here are three ways modern technology could help the IPCC get you to pay attention.
Turn on, Log in, Drop by
In 1988, the biggest difference between interstellar space travel and Google was that people could imagine the former. Very few back then foresaw that information -- the ones and zeroes of our electronic world -- is much easier and faster to move around than people and goods and scientific reports.
The IPCC was created in an Encyclopedia Britannica world, a distant descendent of the Enlightenment, when rich European men with little else to do decided to store all knowledge in a set of books on a shelf. Consequently, all known climate information was put into a set of books on a shelf.
Today, we're living in a Wikipedia world, where knowledge is more obviously alive and evolving. So maybe they should make the IPCC a publicly viewable social network of professional scientists who continuously spar with each other over hot topics -- something that's already been occurring for years on scientists' blogs, like RealClimate.org. That way, the researchers can maintain a rolling assessment of the state of things, and anyone interested can peer over their shoulders. Qualified scientists would give a thumbs up or down to each other's comments, as on Reddit.com. When the situation warrants, they could issue authoritative but shorter reports on critical topics of the moment, more regularly than they do now.
Front of Mind and Urgent. Every Six Years
If climate change is an urgent problem, and it is, this stately publication schedule sends a mixed message: We're destroying our own life-support systems. More on that in 2020.
The report the IPCC wraps up on Sunday is a review of more than 30,000 individual peer-reviewed scientific papers. The group basically exists to give the public one entry point to the climate science literature. Our Wikipedia world can help the climate-science community move from its current model, of stating everything that is true every six years, to a new model of stating anything that's new whenever it's new.
We hear from everybody, all the time, about climate change -- news media, national scientific academies, activist groups, companies. Everybody except the very entity that the UN and its member countries anointed to tell us what's actually going on.
Not only would it be nice to have an authoritative science body that's more responsive, it's more important than ever. The world is running out of time to address climate change, the scientists tell us. At the rate we're going, we'll burn through the chance of a safe, sustainable future by the 2040s.
Hire Web Developers
A nimbler, webbier presentation would clarify what things are known very well (CO2 traps heat) and what things aren't known very well at all (how cloud patterns may or may not change in a warmer, wetter world). They could even have clickable buttons at the top of a refurbishedhttp://www.ipcc.ch that say Things That Are Known Very Well and Things That Aren't Known Very Well at All.
There's now a cottage industry of websites that explain the main aspects of climate change, from governments (NASA or NOAA), nonprofits (Climate Central) and individuals (Skeptical Science). Researchers at Yale, Columbia, George Mason and elsewhere have learned a lot about effective and ineffective ways to inform people that the world is heating up. It's easier than ever to find scientific speech translated into human speech.
And that's great, because as it turns out, the way scientists conduct their research has very little to do with the way people form opinions about it.