The rapid disintegration of projections: The West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

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Anthropology | Environmental Studies | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Sociology


How and why did the scientific consensus about sea level rise due to the disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), expressed in the third Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment, disintegrate on the road to the fourth? Using ethnographic interviews and analysis of IPCC documents, we trace the abrupt disintegration of the WAIS consensus. First, we provide a brief historical overview of scientific assessments of the WAIS. Second, we provide a detailed case study of the decision not to provide a WAIS prediction in the Fourth Assessment Report. Third, we discuss the implications of this outcome for the general issue of scientists and policymakers working in assessment organizations to make projections. IPCC authors were less certain about potential WAIS futures than in previous assessment reports in part because of new information, but also because of the outcome of cultural processes within the IPCC, including how people were selected for and worked together within their writing groups. It became too difficult for IPCC assessors to project the range of possible futures for WAIS due to shifts in scientific knowledge as well as in the institutions that facilitated the interpretations of this knowledge.


DOI: 10.1177/0306312712448130