Armageddon Report No. 5.
The IPCC is about to issue AR5 or its fifth Assessment Report on global warming, but since these successively more alarming reports always predict a looming end of the world as we know it, I prefer my own interpretation of the acronym. It’s going to be a tough gig for the Cassandras of climate for a number of reasons.
The biggie is that there hasn’t been any of the predicted increase in warming for nearly two decades and now lay members of the church have been raising some serious questions on some of the central tenets of its theology. Reputable researchers, yes they do exist in climate science, are now feeling emboldened enough to break ranks and beginning to intimate that the climate might not be so sensitive to CO2 as we’ve previously been led to believe. The great Satan of the Church of Climatology looks increasingly to be nothing more than a minor imp on the receiving end of a bum rap.
The output organ of the propaganda machine, otherwise known as environmental journalism, is being disassembled worldwide by the bean counters and a new breed of journalist is scenting blood and rising up the career ladder at the expense of a now friendless IPCC. The ordinary person has no time at all for environmental scares and to top all their woes, the politicians have abandoned them in the political wilderness. All in all, the centre cannot hold.
There’s a very definite feeling in the air that the IPCC is having a final solitary drink in the Last Chance Saloon, before riding out to be permanently swallowed up by the bad lands outside town. The previous report got torn to pieces by the skeptics and this one, judging by the commentary on leaks of it from various quarters, won’t fare much better. What is for certain is that it’ll be alarmist and after its publication, there’s going to be a huge battle with all sorts of people being extremely rude to each other in the nicest possible way, which I will also be doing but I have to confess in advance, not so nicely.
AR5 is their last desperate throw of the dice and they aren’t feeling lucky.
Being a veteran of previous assessments, and as it’s been six years since the publication of the last one, the situation might be more comprehensible to the relative newcomer to the climate wars if I tell you about what’s going to happen but in a more familiar context. Let’s recast it in terms of a classic power grab at the highest level of corporate politics with the added benefit of showing its evolution from relatively modest Uriah Heep origins.
Imagine you’re a corporate Machiavelli hugely ambitious to go places. Your classic first move is to get a document to the board promoting your new vision of where the company should be going, carefully glossing over the benefits to your good self which will inevitably accrue should it be adopted. In a perfect world, you could ask a single expert to produce a change of business strategy report on something slightly technical for consideration by the governing board of directors. However, in the real world he’ll tend to come back with something massive which nobody but another conehead would understand.
There are a number of problems with that, not the least of which is that the board members don’t actually understand anything technical about the business anyway, even if they are supposed to be in charge of things. Opening a bottle of vino using a corkscrew without injuring themselves or an innocent bystander tends to be at the very outer edge of their technical competence envelope, which accounts for the occasional blood spatter you’ll see on the wall of a boardroom.
The way out of that particular snagette is to ask your expert to go back and prefix their Tolstoyan effort with an executive summary, which you, knowing the attention span of the recipients, boil down to one page from the twenty or so that are your expert’s idea of a summary.
The bigger problem is of course that he’s “your” expert, so if he gets it wrong, you’ll get a proportionally bigger share of the blame. That risk is easy enough to lay off; just replace the single conehead with a whole bunch of them and tell the board you’ve assembled a team of the very brightest and best. Whatever an A-team like that produces will therefore be the gold standard, and if they don’t, you can always replace a few of them with only a smaller share of any resultant reputational damage to your good self.
Having editorial control of the executive summary is of course key, because you know that’s the only thing the board will actually read. You spin or ignore whatever the tedious coneheads have produced copious volumes of and the summary becomes your bitch. Just make sure the move you want made looks like a no brainer and the income projections are mouth-watering.
If you’re dealing with a strong board, the report will be either accepted as the basis of a policy change or rejected. Where a board is disunited, weak or simply doesn’t want to make a decision either way, you’ll be asked to come back with more information or best of all, an enhanced report.
For the next report, you’ll have lost a few experts because of the spin you imparted to their work the last time around. They’ll wash their hands of the whole thing and walk away but since they’ve no access to the board, their grumblings about the terrible way you’ve abused their work are irrelevant.
This wastage you treat not so much as a problem but as an opportunity to replace them with a few more of your own creatures, who’ll be more than happy to spin the underlying documents any way you want. The slight downside of that move is that real expertise is gradually being replaced by compliant incompetents, who actually don’t know much about the business sector but agree with whatever they think it is you want. You of course tell the board it’s an even better A-team. Best of the best. Crème de la bloody crème.
After a few loops like that you can gradually spin the summary and its supporting documents from DEFCON 5 all the way up to DEFCON 1, until your case becomes absolutely compelling. Vague judgement calls start becoming very quantitative. Things the coneheads think might possibly happen magically become things that are 97% certain, a number you just pulled straight out of your ass. In the end, you can even start producing the summary before the underlying documents it’s supposed to be based on are completed. They’ll be published later and since nobody will ever read them, who gives a rat’s ass about them anyway.
All this busy as a bee report production happens against an increasing background of leaks. Grumpy dissenters in the ranks start leaking the raw reports and comments on them to unsympathetic parties, so you do a bit of leaking yourself, but in your case that’s called advanced briefing as it’s only for your selected pals in the media, who you know can be relied on to use the information responsibly.
Let’s now assume you get your way and your policy is adopted. The board waxes lyrical to the media and shareholders about this bold new course for the business. The financial press, chronically ignorant as ever, get caught up in the euphoria and the company gets added to most broker’s accumulate lists. The share price rises, driven by nothing more than press comment and a surge in demand. Share speculators of the momentum persuasion start taking long positions.
In the world of commerce, a change of business strategy which turns out to be a mistake, shows up very quickly in the bottom line numbers. It’s at that stage the real owners of the company, known as the shareholders, start to get restless, because the share price is creeping down. Brokers move the company off the accumulate list and onto hold, with one beady eye on moving it over to a sell. Once that happens, the board members start to get uneasy and if you’re lucky, you might get one more chance to get it to deliver all those goodies you promised it would.
There’s a few holding actions you can do at that point, such as throw a few people in middle management to the dogs and replace them with new people you assure the board will soon get it all back on track to the predicted success now you’ve cleared the obstructions.
However, at some point the options available run out and suddenly you notice your career dissipation warning light is blinking an angry insistent red at you. The thing stubbornly refuses to move into profit. When that becomes apparent to all, the board’s first move towards self-preservation is to fire you, though that’s usually dressed up as an amicable parting of the ways, with you trousering a nice contract severance payoff. Occasionally the board makes that move a little too late, so because of shareholder pressure, some of them end up accompanying you out of the head office carrying their very own cardboard boxes.
In the worst case scenario, a corporate doctor is parachuted in to see if it can all be fixed up. If possible, he’ll usually close down the bits of the business haemorrhaging money and move resources to concentrate on the viable bits. It’s called downsizing or becoming unemployed, if you’re on the sharp end of it. Even then, it may not be enough to save the business from bankruptcy, in which case everyone is out on their ear, leaving the shareholders with nothing but some cold comfort in offsetting their capital losses against their capital gains in other more profitable investments.
Mapping that parable back onto the IPCC’s travails, the Machiavellis are the climate activists bent on traumatically restructuring western capitalism, the board are our current crop of flaccid politicians, the coneheads the hapless scientists and of course the shareholders are our good tax-paying selves, who actually footed the bill for the whole project, as well as its resulting losses. The business? Well, that was our children’s future prosperity.
AR4 was born using precisely the same murky bureaucratic shenanigans outlined above but they got found out. Skeptics did actually go back and check the summary against the underlying documents, did discover nearly one-third of the science experts were actually nothing more than environmental activists and even that some of the scientific predictions were based on nothing more than cut and pastes from alarmist pamphlets. Knowing the arrogance of the same people involved, I’ve no doubt AR5 will prove to be a bastard child of a similar provenance.
The slick question to ask is where are the IPCC in terms of the above process? Well, unless I miss my guess, the smart ones in the organisation are already rooting around for cardboard boxes.
Related articles by Pointman: