To former IPCC chair Watson, it is crucial that these criticisms not go unanswered. "The IPCC needs to have an answer for this," he says. "They need to be prepared." But in Santer's view, climate science is rapidly approaching the point where it is immune to these kinds of critiques: "Up until now, the criticism has been that climate science is like a house of cards, and if you pull out one or two sets of data, it all collapses. That narrative has been refuted. The Fifth Assessment shows that warming has a physical and internal consistency – it's warming in the deep ocean, in the intermediate ocean and in the lower atmosphere. Sea level is rising. Arctic sea ice is retreating. The observational evidence for human-caused warming is overwhelming, compelling and irrefutable."
That may be true, says Oreskes, "but if there is one thing we have learned in recent years, it's that climate change is not just a scientific problem. It is also a political, social and cultural problem." According to Yale's Leiserowitz, it's also a problem that four in 10 people in the world have never heard of. "If you can reach them, you can convince them," says Leiserowitz. But it is going to take more than a few well-written press releases and a spiffy website: "Think about what a company like Coke does when they are launching a new product in the world," says Leiserowitz. "They spend a billion dollars doing market research, crafting ads, targeting their audience. They know that is what it takes to cut through the media clutter today. So far, the climate movement hasn't come close to thinking about how to communicate on that scale."
For better or worse, this Fifth Assessment may be the last grand climate-science report from the IPCC. "I think these reports have outgrown their usefulness," says David Keith, a Harvard professor who recently resigned as an author of the Fifth Assessment, echoing the view of other top scientists. "If it were gone, scientists might reorganize themselves in a more effective way."
In a more rational world, of course, we wouldn't need any more IPCC assessments. We would have listened to the scientists, built a global consensus and forged international agreements to reduce carbon pollution and head off the risk of climate catastrophe. But in the 25 years since the IPCC was formed, global carbon pollution is rising faster than ever. Future readers may view IPCC reports not as landmarks of scientific inquiry, but as suicide notes from a lost civilization.
This story is from the September 26th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
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