The credibility of the UN’s climate watchdog has been seriously hit recently through the effective attacks by climate deniers. Several “scandals” (“Climategate”, “Glaciergate” ) have exposed that even the best peer-reviewed study will have its human flaws. Although all these episodes tell us something about the communication war which is being won by the deniers and their sponsors [see NY Times: “Signs of damage to public trust in climate findings”), in essence none of these “revelations” changes anything about the validity of the science. The only thing these stories do confirm is that “predictions” are always a dangerous undertaking. And this goes in two directions. Maybe the Himalayan glaciers will not disappear by 2035 but then the IPCC prediction that the Arctic will be completely ice-free by 2100 has also been invalidated by more recent scientific work. But this “Arcticgate” is, of course, a no-go for the deniers.
That said, I myself start to believe the IPCC’s analysis might indeed by wrong on several accounts. But this assessment has more to do with the absence in the IPCC of certain experts who could throw a different light on certain future developments than with all the “gates” opened by the latest “revelations”. By focusing nearly exclusively on biophysical climate models, the IPCC scientists might be missing some global trends which could seriously affect the way global warming will continue in the future. Let me explain.
There are at least two blind spots in the IPCC’s analysis: the reports ignore the trend of peaking fossil fuels and the effects of a prolonged economic decline.
Since more than 3 years, Swedish physics professor Kjell Aleklett has argued that the worst scenarios of the IPCC are unrealistic because they overestimate the amount of carbon that can be emitted from fossil fuels at an economic price. Aleklett, who is sometimes unjustly placed in the climate skeptics’ camp, argues that we will run out of affordable fossil fuels before these can do the damage which the IPCC predicts (see “The UN’s future scenarios for climate are pure fantasy”). Although his analysis might be incorrect (he might be underestimating the resilience and the lobbying power of the fossil fuels lobby), I think the IPCC would do well to look more carefully into peak energy and its effects in its upcoming reports.
Secondly, the current economic crisis has been a blessing in terms of carbon emissions. Thanks to the global depression, more emissions reductions have been achieved than those resulting from policy measures. What if the 2008-9 economic depression were only the foreplay of a longer economic (and social) descent as a result of declining essential resources? Maybe the current financial crisis is only the first mild sign of a new economic era, where one crisis will follow another and each will hit a little bit harder every time. What would be the effects on the IPCC scenarios?
Am I saying we should forget about the IPCC and its apocalypse scenarios? Of course not, but maybe it is time for the IPCC scientists and the policy-makers to look at the broader picture instead of just fixing all their attention on the climate dimension of our civilization crisis. The IPCC would regain credibility by doing so and the climate deniers would have to re-adjust their flawed strategies.