The nations capital has been slammed with storms this winter, and so has the climate-change debate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) is now attempting to dig out from a scandal that policy makers and ordinary citizens alike will find instructive.
In November, emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, included discussion amongst prominent climate scientists of silencing opposing viewpoints on climate science. In January, it became clear that the 2007 IPCC report used largely unsubstantiated evidence to overstate the melting rate of Himalayan glaciers.
In recent weeks, some have begun to call for the resignation of IPCC president Rajendra Pachauri for failure to acknowledge the error despite strong evidence (the IPCC did not issue a statement about it until the story broke in the press), and suggesting his paid positions on boards of major global businesses represent a conflict of interest.
On the matter of the Himalayan glaciers, the IPCC eventually admitted that one of the underpinning contributions to the Fourth Assessment Report used poorly substantiated estimates of the rate of recession and date for the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers in predicting that this source of drinking and irrigation water for major portions of South Asia could disappear by 2035. The IPCCs admission was a tepid way of saying that the melting rate of the Himalayan glaciers was exaggerated, and not based on any substantial body of scientific literature. The lead author for the 2007 reports chapter on Asia explained to a London newspaper that the exaggeration was not simply an error, but a strategic decision. We thought that if we can highlight it, said Murai Lal, it will impact policy makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action.
To the extent that the IPCC reports have formed the basis for much of the policy discussions in the climate debate, it is critical that the process remain free from bias and advocacy. Unfortunately, that is increasingly proving to not be the case. Indeed, bias and advocacy seem to be the rule. Last week, the journal Nature published a series of viewpoints from current and former lead and contributing authors for IPCC assessment reports. Their letters indicate skepticism, even among IPCC contributing scientists, about the continued value of this process.
For example, IPCC scientist Eduardo Zorita said, The IPCC currently performs as a diffuse community of government-nominated academic volunteers occupying a blurred space between science and politics, issuing self-reviewed reports under great stresses and unmanageable deadlines. Its undefined structure puts it at the mercy of pressure from advocates.
Lead author Jeff Price notes that Currently, authors are selected to represent a range of views, expertise, gender and geographical representation. However, given the importance placed on these assessments, the most senior positions should be filled by the nominees most expert in their field, regardless of balance. Its not clear how selecting authors based on gender and geographical representation serves the interest of science.
Former lead author John Christy explains further, The IPCC selects lead authors from the pool of those nominated by individual governments. Over time, many governments nominated only authors who were aligned with stated policy . . . Selected lead authors have the last word in the review cycle and so control the message, often ignoring or marginalizing dissenting comments.
The message is clear. The IPCC structure makes it easy pickings for advocates. The IPCC process allows for selection of authors on grounds that have nothing to do with science. Worse, the IPCC favors authors already aligned with a viewpoint promoted by their government, espousing bias instead of avoiding it.
Scientists and others outside the consensus have been branded deniers on the fringe, largely on the basis of the IPCC reports. When those within the IPCC writing teams themselves tell us that the reports are vulnerable to abuses of power, we should all be more skeptical of the IPCC process and the products it produces. That includes those in Washington DC now digging out from the worst storm in a century, the latest evidence that climate change is real.