A fictional UN climate body exists in the minds of the gullible. And then there’s the real IPCC.
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” – from The Princess Bride
On Friday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release a summary of the first installment of its hefty new climate assessment. As a result, we’ll be hearing a great deal about this UN body over the next several days.
Already, though, it’s clear that many commentators don’t have the first flying clue what they’re talking about. As the author of two books about the IPCC, I’m happy to help out.
Over at TheConversation.com, an Australian news source, media professor David Holmes tells us that the IPCC is famous for being cautious. To quote him exactly:
Even with all the caution that the IPCC is famous for, it still managed to make a few errors in its almost 3000  page report.
Another version of this claim is that the IPCC is “conservative.” Indeed, just yesterday David Suzuki was quoted by an Australian newspaper, declaring that the IPCC is “ultra conservative” and “unbelievably conservative.” But this is unmitigated nonsense.
A cautious, conservative organization would have moved swiftly, shortly after it was established in 1988, to implement rigorous conflict-of-interest policies. Lawyers, judges, politicians, doctors, all kinds of people have been guided by these policies for years. Yet for more than two decades, they weren’t even on the IPCC’s radar.
In a 2010 interview with The Economist, Rajendra Pachauri, its chairman, was asked: “Isn’t it rather remarkable that you should have this organisation that does not have any procedure for dealing with conflict of interest”? His response took the form of lame declarations such as:
Why would I raise something, unless there is a reason for me to raise it?
.So I’ve never felt the need for it. If somebody else feels the need for it go ahead. My behaviour is above reproach.
Only after a damning report was issued by a committee of the InterAcademy Council in late 2010, did the IPCC begin to talk about such matters.
The IPCC likes to tell us that we should trust its judgment because its reports have been “peer-reviewed” by thousands of external scientific experts. In reality, much of the material that makes it into the final version is added long after those experts have exited the stage.
November 30 of last year was the deadline by which the external reviewers were required to submit their feedback on the second draft of the report that is about to be released. Two weeks later, the IPCC issued a press release that included the following sentence:
It should also be noted that the cut-off date for peer-reviewed published literature to be included and assessed in the final draft lies in the future (15 March 2013).
What this means is that the oh-so-conservative IPCC has given itself permission to cite hot-off-the-press research – research that’s so recent neither the wider scientific community nor its own expert reviewers have had any meaningful opportunity to evaluate it.
A truly cautious organization would cite only research whose results have been carefully replicated (according to some accounts, most research findings turn out to be wrong). But almost none of the IPCC’s source material meets that threshold.
One of the major conclusions of the IPCC’s 2007 report was that 20-30% of the planet’s species are at risk of extinction due to climate change. Would an organization famous for being cautious have put two people linked to the activist World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in charge of the chapter that reached that particular conclusion? Would it have tapped a total of eight individuals connected to the WWF to participate in its deliberations?
The main piece of research on which the IPCC’s species extinction claim rests is known as the Thomas paper. It was a Nature cover story in January 2004, but its findings were so controversial that, six months later, Nature had already published three separate critiques. Daniel Botkin, a pre-eminent biologist, later dismissed the Thomas research as “the worst paper I have ever read in a major scientific journal.”
How did the unbelievably conservative IPCC handle this matter? It closed its eyes and pretended the vigorous debate within Nature‘s pages didn’t even happen. At the end of the IPCC’s species extinction chapter, we find 917 references to source material. The three critiques didn’t make the list.
There is, my friends, a fictional IPCC which exists in the minds of the gullible. And then there’s the real IPCC.