Posted 3 September 2010

Criticisms of IPCC processes and procedures continue to flow following publication of the report of the InterAcademy Council  (IAC):

From Dr Tim Ball, in Canada  ("It’s time to stop the lies, deceptions, denials and fantasy that is the world of political climate science")  here 

From Christopher Booker, in The Telegraph, UK  ("the most bizarre and outrageous scandal in the history of the world?") here 

From the Scientific Alliance: 

Honesty is the best policy

The world of mainstream climate change science and policy has been severely discomfited over that last year by a number of issues which have knocked the seemingly-unstoppable juggernaut off-course. One of these - the failure of governments to agree a post-Kyoto deal at last December's Copenhagen summit - had little to do with the behaviour of the IPCC and its core scientists (although it was widely predicted and almost inevitable). But two other issues were self-inflicted wounds directly attributable to those at the heart of the climate establishment.

What will forever be remembered as climategate (surely about time for someone to find something to replace the allusion to a scandal now more than 35 years' old. . .) shook faith in the behaviour of some of the key scientists responsible for reconstructing the historical temperature record. Attempts to prevent inclusion in the IPCC's Fourth Assessment report (AR4) of papers which conflicted with the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis, collusion in deleting sensitive emails and clear failures to comply with Freedom of Information requests all raised doubts about the integrity of the scientific effort.

Two somewhat perfunctory internal inquiries at the University of East Anglia, and a report by the House of Commons Science and Technology select committee (with time for only one day of evidence-taking) all cleared the Climate Research Unit team of any serious wrong-doing. In reality few hard questions were asked, important issues were glossed over, and many observers saw the whole process as a whitewash: the normal outcome of official inquiries into contentious issues.

But the other own goal was caused by the IPCC itself, which was beset by a series of scandalettes regarding inaccuracies in the AR4 itself. One of the high profile ones was the statement that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035 (apparently a misprint for 2350), but there were a number of others which suggested that undue credence was given to the 'grey' (non-peer reviewed) literature if it gave the right messages, while inconvenient findings were ignored or dismissed.

A recent inquiry by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, commissioned by the Dutch government, was somewhat critical, accusing the IPCC of being too opaque in its workings and for issuing a report which tended to emphasise worst-case scenarios. Nevertheless, the inquiry concluded that there were no errors which would weaken the conclusion that greenhouse gas emissions were the main driver of climate change. Depending on their position in the debate, commentators disagreed on whether the Dutch report was essentially supportive of the IPCC or not, but such independent criticism of its workings were in reality a significant blow. They could no longer be dismissed as the fantasies of a bunch of right-wingers in the pay of the oil industry.

But even more significant was an inquiry conducted by the InterAcademy Council (representing national academies of science such as the Royal Society) on behalf of the UN and the IPCC itself. Given previous solid support by the IAC members for the IPCC position and the tendency for such inquiries towards exoneration, hopes for an objective, critical report were not high. To the surprise of many, the report they released on 30th August was significantly more critical in tone than the Dutch inquiry.

Harold Shapiro of Princeton, who chaired the panel conducting the inquiry, wrote in the report preface 'Our task was to broadly assess the processes and procedures of the IPCC and make recommendations on how they might be improved in order to enhance the quality and authoritative nature of future assessments.' So, although this was not a review of the scientific evidence and judgements made by the IPCC, neither was it tied to overly narrow terms of reference which often reduce the value of such an exercise.

The IPCC is often criticised for ignoring or dismissing alternative hypotheses since, in the view of the core clique of lead authors, there is only one right answer. How refreshing then to see Professor Shapiro write 'Indeed climate science is a collective learning process as data are accumulated, interpreted, and used to construct models, and as alternative hypotheses are tested until we have increased confidence in our measurements and models and as a subset of ideas survive careful testing and competing explanations are eliminated.' Although couched in careful and diplomatic language, this should be a loud wake-up call for IPPC lead authors to open their minds to other possibilities.

One of the headline recommendations is for the formation of an Executive Committee empowered to make decisions on behalf of the Panel between plenary sessions, and for this to be led by a full-time Executive Director, appointed for one six-year term only. This has been widely interpreted as a direct call for Rajendra Pachauri, the current part-time director, to stand down. He is already well into his second term of office and his inept handling of criticisms has won him few friends.

The IAC report also calls for all reviewers' comments to be properly considered and for genuine controversies to be adequately reflected, something which Phil Jones and the team at the University of East Anglia seemed to be trying to avoid at all costs. There is criticism also of the use by Working Group I of spurious quantitative likelihood scales: for example defining 'extremely likely' as a greater than 95% confidence that an event would occur, based on little or no objective evidence.

The thrust of the IAC critique is that the IPCC has become a lobbying body for particular policy options based on a single, entrenched position. Restructuring it to be a body which takes an objective view of the evidence and comes up with trusted and authoritative reports will take time but is essential. Those at the centre of this have not only done their own cause a big disservice, but have further weakened the trust of an already cynical public in the integrity of science.

It is clear that the agenda has been to promote the 'truth' of man-made global warming at the expense of honesty and objectivity to ensure that politicians saw no option but to introduce stringent emissions control measures. Any questioning of this line was slapped down to avoid weakening their resolve. But this strategy - perhaps better described as a gamble - has failed. Not only that, but it has backfired and makes people even less willing to accept messages from sources they now view as tainted. And, despite still making the right noises, politicians are becoming less and less likely to introduce emissions reduction policies which hit taxpayers at a time when other taxes are being raised and public services cut.

How different it all might have been if IPCC lead authors had acted as scientists rather than an affiliate of Greenpeace. They may not have been any closer to their policy goals, but they would not have forfeited public trust. If the evidence for the enhanced greenhouse hypothesis had become more compelling, people would have been more willing to believe it and accept the policy consequences. As it is, the global warming industry has probably reached a high point in its influence, while science has suffered. It's a hard way to learn again that honesty is the best policy.

The Scientific Alliance
St John's Innovation Centre, Cowley Road, Cambridge CB4 0WS
Tel: +44 1223 421242

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