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Major change is needed if the IPCC hopes to survive

By Roger Pielke - posted Wednesday, 3 March 2010

It has been a rough couple of months for the climate science community. Last November someone stole or released over 1,000 emails from the University of East Anglia. The emails revealed that some scientists were so entrenched in battle with their scientific and political opponents that they lost their perspective, going so far as to suggest improperly influencing the scientific process of peer review and evading legal requirements to disclose their data upon request.

Climate science took another hit soon thereafter when it became apparent that the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) contained a number of embarrassing errors and an unacceptable amount of sloppy work, such as its erroneous prediction that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035, rather than in several centuries or more.

The IPCC’s handling of the allegations of errors have compounded its problems. Its chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, responded to the first public questions about the Himalayan glacier error by dismissing the allegations as “voodoo science” and the work of climate sceptics. Later, when the sheer weight of the evidence forced the IPCC to correct the erroneous claim in public, it was further revealed that IPCC authors had been aware of the error but were unable to get it changed prior to the report’s publication and had remained strangely silent about it in the years since.


As if this was not bad enough, Pachauri has faced a range of criticism for directing more than a quarter of a million dollars in consulting and appearance fees over the past several years to the non-profit organisation that he directs in India. These payments came from companies and investors with a direct stake in the outcome of climate policy negotiations, including Deutsche Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the Pegasus investment fund. Pachauri has not helped the image of the IPCC by responding forcefully but unpersuasively, explaining that his many business connections - such as enhanced oil recovery and carbon trading operations - are in the common interest, rendering any sort of conflict of interest policies unnecessary.

With all of these troubles facing climate science and the IPCC, some have called for the organisation to be reformed or terminated, or at least for its chairman to resign. I have been a strong critic of the IPCC, not least because of its improper treatment of work that I have contributed to on weather-related disasters and climate change. However, I think the IPCC is worth sustaining, but only if it addresses the institutional factors that have led to its recent troubles and a corresponding loss of public trust in the climate science community.

There are some advocates and climate scientists who ask that we ignore the recent failings of the IPCC, because admitting that there is a problem might give succour to sceptics opposed to action. I have a different view. Standing up for climate science means addressing problems, not ignoring them or politicising them.

I have first-hand experience with the panel’s errors and wrongheaded behaviour. In its 2007 report, the IPCC included a graph that showed a smoothed line representing increasing global temperatures since 1970 on top of a smoothed line showing the increasing costs of weather-related disasters. The implication of the graph is not difficult to discern - the increasing costs of catastrophes are related to rising temperatures.

Unfortunately, not only is this implication contrary to all peer-reviewed science on this subject, but the IPCC created this misleading graph from whole cloth, intentionally mis-cited it, and when questioned by an expert reviewer of a draft of the report, falsified information in its much-touted peer review process. When challenged in recent weeks, the IPCC quickly issued a press release calling the claims “baseless” but completely ignoring the substantive issues. In recent days, a leading German scientist went so far as to suggest that the IPCC’s actions on disasters and climate change were tantamount to “fraud”.

As with the glacier issue, IPCC stonewalling has proven not to be a sustainable response. In recent weeks, the IPCC author who created the disaster cost graph has explained that it was merely “informal” and that it should not have been included because of its potential to mislead. And mislead it has. Just last week Australia’s climate change minister, Penny Wong, fell prey to the IPCC’s misdirection when she invoked the IPCC press release to explain in error that “the science on the link between these catastrophes and climate change has not been credibly challenged”.


There is however no such link. The book chapter that included the data that served as the basis for the misleading IPCC graph reached a starkly different conclusion than that suggested by Minster Wong: “We find insufficient evidence to claim a statistical relationship between global temperature increase and normalised catastrophe losses.”

A peer reviewer of the IPCC questioned the unsupported allegations in the report, and asked what I, as someone whose work was being questioned, thought about the report’s claim. The IPCC responded to the reviewer that I had changed my mind about my own research conclusions, a bald lie. I have complained to the IPCC about these various issues, only to receive a polite but substance-free response followed by extended silence.

My frustrating experience with the IPCC suggests that it desperately needs a mechanism for resolving allegations of error in its work. Its current ad hoc manner of response encourages the panel to politick by press release rather than undertake a careful evaluation of claims. Imagine how different things might be if the IPCC recognised in a positive manner anyone who found a legitimate mistake in its report, with errata and corrigenda continuously updated. Such acceptance of fallibility would show that the panel is open to close scrutiny and values the accuracy of its reports above all else. This would be a welcome improvement to the defensive and sometimes arrogant attitude demonstrated in recent months.

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First published in Yale Environment 360 on February 25, 2010.

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About the Author

Roger A. Pielke, Jr. is a professor in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Colorado and a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES). From 2001 to 2007, he served as director of CIRES’ Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. He is also a Senior Fellow of the Breakthrough Institute, a Oakland, California-based think tank that, among other issues, focuses on making the transition to a clean-energy economy. He is the author of the book The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics.

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