The UK Energy and Climate Change Committee invited anyone with interest in the AR5 report to submit answers on a long list of questions. The deadline has now passed and several people have already made their contribution public (Richard Tol, Paul Matthews, Mike Haseler). As sooner or later all the submissions will be public anyway I have decided to do the same. My submission follows below and can also be downloaded as a pdf here.
Energy and Climate Change Committee inquiry into AR5
Written submission by Marcel Crok
Credentials and statement of interests
I am a Dutch freelance science writer based in Amsterdam. Since 2005 I specialised in the global warming debate. In 2005 as an editor of the Dutch monthly popular science magazine Natuurwetenschap & Techniek (recently this has become the Dutch edition of New Scientist) I published a long and critical article about the infamous hockey stick graph featuring the criticism of Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick. Many of the issues described in that article came back in the Climategate emails.
I published a critical book in 2010 that focused on the third and fourth assessment reports of the IPCC (TAR and AR4). The Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment then gave me funding to critically review AR5 as an expert reviewer.
Since Climategate I am in favour of a more constructive interaction between climate scientists with opposing views. Late 2012 the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment funded an international discussion platform, ClimateDialogue.org, that organises constructive dialogues between climate scientists with opposing views. This has been set up by the leading Dutch climate related institutes KNMI and PBL and myself.  We cover controversial topics and invite scientists with a range of views.
In 2013 I was co-author of my first peer reviewed paper (describing a European temperature shift in 1988).
How robust are the conclusions in the AR5 Physical Science Basis report?
To answer this question is beyond the scope of this inquiry I would say. However your own introduction provides a good start to deal with it. You wrote: “The report concluded that, ‘it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.’ But it reduced the lower bound for likely climate sensitivity and for the first time did not publish a best estimate of it because of lack of agreement.”
It’s good that you picked up this apparent paradox. AR5 itself focused on the 95% certainty that humans are the cause of most (>50%) of the warming since 1950. Most media outlets brought this as the major news of AR5 writing things like ‘how much more certainty do you want (before you act)?’.
However this interpretation of the 95% claim is misleading. In a sense the 95% claim of AR5 (itself a result of expert judgment and not some sort of mathematical calculation) is a no-brainer.
To understand this we focus on this other important parameter, climate sensitivity (the rise in global temperature after a doubling of the CO2 concentration). Recently several papers have been published estimating climate sensitivity from observational data since 1850. These studies assume that almost all of the warming since 1850 is due to greenhouse gases. These papers then come up with best estimates for climate sensitivity in the range of 1.5 to 2.0°C, considerably lower than the best estimate of 3.0°C that IPCC has presented in all their assessment reports so far.
So claiming that at least 50% of the warming since 1950 is due to humans is meaningless. The much more important question is whether the contribution of greenhouse gases to warming is big or small. AR5 has all the ingredients to conclude that the contribution is much smaller than we have thought for the last three decades. But by not giving a best estimate for climate sensitivity it failed to communicate this important message. So IPCC failed to give policy makers its most important conclusion. And IPCC only dealt with this important decision in a footnote in the Summary for Policymakers (SPM).
The 95% claim also tells you nothing about the seriousness of the climate issue. The 95% can be completely in accordance with there being no climate problem at all. IPCC failed to explain this clearly and journalists didn’t pick it up.
To conclude: the 95% claim of AR5 has been misinterpreted by most people, including policy makers and the media as the final proof that we have a huge anthropogenic climate problem. The claim itself proves no such thing and is in fact pretty meaningless.
Although it seems contradictory, there is in itself no conflict between the increasing certainty (the 95% attribution claim) and not giving a best estimate for climate sensitivity (less certainty). The 95% claim is just very conservative and tells you little about the seriousness of the climate issue. Lees verder…