Doom-mongering documents that spell out a bleak future for the planet have become ten-a-penny in recent years.
Barely a month goes by without some grim new prognosis from an environmental activist group such as Greenpeace, and many observers will doubtless ignore the Global Environment Outlook report as more of the same.
The review commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme, however, is much more than campaigning propaganda from a group with an agenda. Its findings carry considerable credibility because of the way they have been assembled.
Though the report’s language might sound extreme, with talk of “humanity’s very survival” at risk, the structure of the WEO actually lends itself to conservatism. Its findings deserve to be taken very seriously as a result – this is not scaremongering to make a point.
Like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has transformed political thinking about global warming and which won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, it operates by consensus and strict peer review.
It was compiled by a group of more than 380 scientists, all leading figures in fields such as climate science, ecology, fisheries or land use, subdivided into ten expert groups that prepared the chapters. Some 157 of these were appointed by 48 governments – and were thus unlikely to adopt an extreme position.
A further 1,000 scientists took part as peer-reviewers, poring over the conclusions in the areas of their expertise to challenge any misleading claims. A total of more than 13,000 comments on the draft of the full report, and 3,000 comments on the summary for decision-makers, were recorded and considered by the expert groups writing each chapter.
The result of such a process is that conclusions have tended to err on the side of caution. Only claims that have reasonably robust support in published scientific literature have been made, and wilder hypotheses have been rejected. The report’s alarming conclusions appear rather more compelling in this light.
One of the few criticisms to be made of the methodology is that these comments have been kept confidential. Though UNEP cites the need to ensure that reviewers respond candidly, it might be argued that fuller and more transparent acknowledgement of any dissenting views would have added further to the document’s credibility.
The work was funded by the governments of the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and Sweden.
Sir Howard Dalton, chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said that while the report’s message sounds bleak, “a report of this kind cannot help it”.
He said: “The overall message of the science is pretty much incontrovertible. It is based on an incredible amount of activity around the globe that all points in the same direction.”
Sir Howard said that open, peer-reviewed research was the best route to protecting the environment. “It is critical that science is presented in a forum in which it is open to challenge – that is one of science’s greatest strengths,” he said.
“The scientific publications that come out these days are subject to some pretty high-level scrutiny, and that makes their conclusions difficult to ignore. We now need to focus on what can be done.”