Skip to content

Following the mistakes found in one of the IPCC’s reports, Dutch scientist Robbert Dijkgraaf, the president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, is investigating the UN climate panel’s procedures.

Robbert Dijkgraaf knew his every word would be put under the microscope from the moment he accepted the assignment to review the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Critics were quick to dub his investigation of the UN’s climate panel “a scientific whitewash”, a smart way to control the damage caused by the blunders in recent climate reports. Dijkgraaf, the president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and a mathematical physicist, has been branded a ‘believer’ of the theory humans are responsible for the rising global temperatures.

Climate research is under significant pressure. First there was ‘Climategate’, the publication of hundreds of emails hacked from a British university that made climate scientists look like a bitter bunch. The Copenhagen summit where countries couldn’t agree on a new treaty on the emission of greenhouse gasses, dealt another blow to its credibility. Finally, the IPCC came under fire after a number of mistakes in one of its reports were discovered. Climate sceptics have used these issues in attempts to prove the whole theory of global warming a hoax.

To end this controversy, the United Nations decided on an independent evaluation of its IPCC’s procedures. The InterAcademy Council (IAC), the umbrella organisation of all science academies in the world, was asked to do the job. The Amsterdam-based IAC is chaired by Dijkgraaf, in partnership with the president of the Chinese science academy, Lu Yongxiang.

How would you explain the growing public scepticism regarding climate change?

“The world is becoming more complicated. Flows of information are more diversified and intersect each other. People are using all kinds of sources to obtain information. The climate debate is influenced by blogs and websites that represent certain views. I encourage people to seek knowledge. In science, our worst enemy often is apathy.

“It is a weird dichotomy: as science becomes more detailed and more complex, it seems to be further removed from everyday reality. On the other hand, science is also becoming more relevant. We can narrow our results down to ever-tinier fractions and thus improve their application and significance. In the climate debate, we are dealing with economic growth, prosperity and the environment. Everybody is touched by these things very directly. There is a moral and even an emotional aspect to it.

“The worlds of knowledge and society are increasingly intertwined. The interactions between the two are growing more complex and can no longer be channelled through official conduits. Fifty years ago, a science academy could simply advise the minister who would then say: this is what we’re going to do. Today, an advice has to be public. It is discussed in forums and debates. The interface has become more dynamic. As a result, there are bigger mood swings in public opinion.

“It is important to keep the two worlds together. The debate on nuclear energy and genetic modification shows what can happen if we don’t. People are split into camps: one scientific camp, opposing one in society at large composed of people who feel concerned over the subject. A similar development is underway in climate science. The word ‘sceptic’ has become charged in the climate debate. It shouldn’t be; every good scientist is a sceptic by nature.”

Doesn’t political interference complicate science?

“The scientific community needs to know its boundaries. The limit is not a straight line, but more of a fractal that fluctuates in all sorts of ways. Just thinking about scientific knowledge as such no longer suffices, we have to think about ways to organise that knowledge and how to deal with policy processes. The IPCC, for instance, submits drafts of its reports to the countries involved for their approval before publication. One can wonder whether that is the best way to go. It is a choice that must have offered some benefits, and perhaps still does. We are dealing with the exact modelling of the interface between knowledge and policy making.”

The message of the Copenhagen climate summit was scientific: we have to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. But at the summit, none of the debate was about science.

“As a physicist: when I see a number, I see a margin of error. Those margins are as important as the values themselves. Progress in science often improves the margins of error. By being clear about uncertainties, you gain certainty and confidence. But politicians don’t like margins of error. I once heard a Dutch politician say: ‘why don’t you scientists make sure you agree first and then we can move on?’ The political game is different from the scientific one. Wasn’t it Leibniz who said philosophy would one day be nothing more than mathematics? What a touching naivety. That is not how the world works.

“We have to connect science to society somewhere. It is up to politicians to balance interests. On the world stage, the interests of different countries and groups are often at odds. At the same time, we only have one planet. Many problems aren’t limited by national borders. This is obvious in the climate debate, even in Copenhagen. Despite all the insecurities and difficulties, people feel strongly involved with the woes of the world. How can we make sure the next generation has a fairly pleasant life here on this earth? Science has a role to play in answering that question, but it is not alone in answering it. Scientists cannot say: ‘why don’t you politicians agree first so that we can move on?’ either.”

Are scientists assertive enough in this debate?

“It has proven difficult to translate our concerns to the general audience. We have to watch out with alarmist behaviour. A colleague was once asked about the risk of something going wrong with the particle accelerator in Geneva. He answered that the changes were very small. That caused a panic. He meant the chances were one in 35-digit number. He thought he had to be honest and couldn’t say the chance of something going wrong was zero.

“But to avoid hair-splitting, he should have said there was no risk. The psychological effects of such a remark can be significant. Many people will think the chance of rolling two dice and getting a double six is quite small, and that happens quite regularly.

“You never know how the public deals with uncertainties. We have been really surprised by the vehemence of some reactions. So we have to try and temper some of the imagined demons. There is a lot of attention for the argument that some of the IPCC’s predictions were too drastic. But there are other people who say the IPCC was too careful in some predictions. The uncertainties work both ways.”

You have not been asked to judge the contents of the IPCC reports.

“No, I am glad we were not asked to sift through the IPCC report looking for errors. That would be a very extensive operation that would really involve setting up a shadow IPCC. Even if that had been my assignment, I would first have asked: what is the best way to set that up? What do we need to do to improve the set-up of the current IPCC? That means answering the question how we should organise climate research today. And that happens to be exactly the assignment we were given.”

What about ‘Climategate’, the hacked emails from the British climate institute?

“Those emails are not directly related to the work of the IPCC. This affair shows how sensitive the issue is and what is at stake. Transparency is paramount. Scientists live in a glass house. The more the impact of knowledge grows, the more important it becomes to make clear how you reached a conclusion. Science often deals with public funding and public institutions. We should serve as an example. There are guidelines as to how a scientist should behave: ethical, honest, professional, open and respectful of the community. “

Has the scientific community taken on too big a responsibility in the climate debate?

“It remains a subtle balance. If you take too much responsibility, there is the risk of succumbing to it. Besides, it can invite others to avoid their responsibility. In the end, all science can do is get across the latest knowledge and the effects of certain scenarios. The assessment of those scenarios is up to politicians. They can’t shun their responsibilities.”

NRC Handelsblad, 20 April 2010