Home Resources SSI News From Inside and Out, Climate Panel Is Pushed to Change - February 5, 2010
From Inside and Out, Climate Panel Is Pushed to Change - February 5, 2010

January 26, 2010, 8:12 am
By ANDREW C. REVKIN

There is growing pressure on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, from within and without, to change some practices to ensure the credibility of its future reports.

The latest push came on Monday in New Delhi, where leaders of countries that formed an influential bloc at last month’s Copenhagen climate talks were meeting to assess next steps. The Business Standard of India quoted Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, as calling for the panel’s next set of reports  to contain a broader set of scientific viewpoints on evidence for global warming:

“We need to adopt an open attitude to scientific research and incorporate all views…. Scientists are waiting for the fifth assessment report and amongst us, we will enhance cooperation in the report to make it more comprehensive.”

The  climate panel was created in 1988 under United Nations auspices to periodically review factors, human and natural, influencing climate and assess possible ways to limit risks. While it shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, it has been under fire in recent weeks over disclosures of errors and unsubstantiated conclusions in its reports and charges of potential conflicts of interest.

Some of the pressure is coming from within the leadership of the group. In e-mail exchanges and phone conversations with half a dozen panel authors over the last few days, it became evident that there is a split. Some panel scientists feel the recent disclosures about unsubstantiated predictions of  the vanishing of Himalayan glaciers, debate over  statements made about disasters and climate and other issues will blow over. Others see a clear need for an open exploration of ways to add more transparency and objectivity on top of the many steps taken in two decades of work.

One of the people in that camp is  Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University, a lead author on several past and future panel reports, who said in an e-mail message: “I.P.C.C. is a continuously evolving, complex and ultimately extremely important process which is already vastly more transparent and more accountable than it was at the time of its first assessment, 20 years ago. It is also more transparent and accountable than any other scientific assessment process I know of. In fact, given the close scrutiny I.P.C.C. reports are subject to after publication, the rarity of such episodes speaks well for the I.P.C.C. process. But the stakes are high and one failure like this is one too many. We can and should do better.”

His full comment is below.

After each of its four reports so far — including the pivotal 2007 assessment that concluded with 90 percent confidence that greenhouse gases from humans were the main force behind recent warming –- the panel leadership has met to consider changing how it works. But these sessions have all been “self-examination,” in the words of one senior panel scientist. Maybe it’s time for a broader review of the panel’s procedures and products, one involving not only the scientists conducting the assessments but also the public in some way (after all, the citizens of the countries that created the climate panel pay the bills).

One issue is how to represent accurately the range of reasoned views on critical questions like the sensitivity of climate to greenhouse gases (basically, how warm the world will get from a particular rise in gas concentrations); how fast and far seas will rise; how ecosystems will, or won’t, respond.

Last March, more than 100 past lead authors of report chapters met in Hawaii to chart next steps for the panel’s inquiries. One presenter there was John R. Christy, a climatologist at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, who has focused on using satellites to chart global temperatures. He was a lead author of a section of the third climate report, in 2001, but is best known these days as a critic of the more heated warnings that climate is already unraveling under the buildup of heat-trapping gases.

At the Hawaii meeting, he gave a presentation proposing that future reports contain a section providing the views of credentialed scientists publishing in the peer-reviewed literature whose views on particular points differ from the consensus. He provided both his poster and summary of his three-minute talk. In an e-mail message to me, he described the reaction this way (L.A. is short for lead author; AR5 is shorthand for the next report, coming in 2013-14.):

"The reception to my comments was especially cold … not one supporter, though a couple of scientists did say I had a “lot of guts” to stand up and say what I said before 140 L.A.s. I was (and still am) calling for the AR5 to be a more open scientific assessment in which those of us who are well-credentialed and have evidence for low climate sensitivity (observational and theoretical) be given room to explain this. We should have the same standards of review authority too. When a subject is excruciatingly complicated, like climate, we see that opinion, overstatement, and appeal-to-authority tend to reign as those of a like-mind essentially take control in their self-constructed echo-chamber. The world needs to see all sides of the evidence. We in the climate business need to understand humility, not pride, when looking at a million degrees-of-freedom problem. It’s just fine to say, “We don’t know,” when that is the truth of the matter."

I also asked him, “Do you see a way forward for this enterprise (presuming you see these recent issues as serious problems but not a fatal indictment)?” He said:

"I think people would read AR5 if it were a true scientific assessment, complete with controversies [described] by the experts themselves. Policymakers will find it uncomfortable, because the simple fact remains that our ignorance of the climate system is enormous. Otherwise, it will be a repeat of what we are now seeing (and what many folks like me knew years ago), that the process has morphed into an agenda-approving exercise."

Chris Field, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution and Stanford University who will lead the writing of the next panel report on impacts from climate change, said he agreed that outliers should be accounted for. But he noted that there are plenty on both sides of important scientific debates, including many researchers finding that warming could be far higher than the predominant view.

Dr. Field’s reaction echoes views expressed on the workings of the climate panel last year by  David Victor, a specialist in climate policy at the University of California, San Diego:

"On balance, I.P.C.C. is doing a decent job of sustaining public support and assuring as much transparency as is feasible. I am impressed by the time that folks commit to those missions in light of the fact that the vast majority of I.P.C.C.’s labor operates on a volunteer basis.

In my view, the much bigger issue for the future is elsewhere. It is in how I.P.C.C. deals with “outliers” and with poorly organized disciplines. The  flap about sea level is a reminder that I.P.C.C. doesn’t work well on topics that are outside the normal bounds of consensus science — yet those “extremes” are key to understanding the tails of the distributions, especially those that relate to possible catastrophic changes in climate systems. Since one of the key rationales for climate policy is managing the tails, that’s a big problem. And the other problem is how to review the “science” in fields of research that don’t have strong paradigms — including most of the social sciences (outside economics). In fields with strong paradigms it is the paradigm — its basic axioms, its key journals, its “moosehead” figures who are the widely accepted experts and arbiters — that helps determine “truth.” In fields where people don’t agree on the paradigm (akin to the laws of physics) it is hard to frame any meaningful consensus in an I.P.C.C.-like setting. This, in my view, is why most of the social sciences are irrelevant to I.P.C.C. — along with the fact that most of what those fields study is politically charged. The politics is what gets the attention, but it is really the intellectual discipline that’s the problem. Those two fronts are where I think I.P.C.C. really must toil."

Here’s Michael Oppenheimer’s full comment on the issue:

"There is nothing troubling about a decision to emphasize those aspects of the science that are of special concern to policy makers. In deciding what to emphasize in both the summaries for policy makers and the underlying chapters, I.P.C.C. authors necessarily must chose from millions of facts and statements they might potentially publish, all of which are extraordinarily interesting to many scientists. But the reality is that only a limited number can be presented due to space limitations and the need to focus on material that is broadly useful. So that decision doesn’t bother me at all.

But a more serious question then arises: did the authors let their strong interest in the issue cause them to throw caution to the wind and press forward a statement based on weak evidence with a pedigree (i.e., not peer reviewed) that called for further exploration of the matter, and did they ignore critical review comments in the process? Not having been privy to the authors’ discussions, I can’t answer this one. In my 40 years as a scientist, I have certainly seen some of my colleagues, acting in their role as normal human beings, occasionally get carried away in their enthusiasm and let nons-cientific biases affect the way they represent their scientific judgment to the public. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. That’s one reason why I.P.C.C. has a multi-layered review process.

This naturally leads to the third issue, which ought to be the main focus of any exploration of what went wrong: why did the safeguards fail? And how might they be improved in order to provide a means for scientists and governments to collaborate successfully to assess information and provide useful insights to policy makers, while maintaining the confidence of the global public?

I.P.C.C. is a continuously evolving, complex and ultimately extremely important process which is already vastly more transparent and more accountable than it was at the time of its first assessment, 20 years ago. It is also more transparent and accountable than any other scientific assessment process I know of. In fact, given the close scrutiny I.P.C.C. reports are subject to after publication, the rarity of such episodes speaks well for the I.P.C.C. process. But the stakes are high and one failure like this is one too many. We can and should do better."

Finally, Roger A. Pielke Jr., a political scientist and specialist in the intersection of climate and disasters at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has been deeply critical of the climate panel for years, contending that it misrepresented work he co-authored and is mired in conflicts of interest. He is one of  three climate researchers who co-wrote an opinion column for the German publication Spiegel Online, calling for substantial changes.

Here’s how he described a path forward in an e-mail message:

"1. If I.P.C.C. is to be the most credible scientific body then it needs to have the highest standards for dealing with conflicts of interest and bias — presently it has none. Such standards were discussed in a  Bipartisan Policy Commission Report that I helped write last year for how the Obama Administration could improve its scientific advisory processes. The guidelines are appropriate in I.P.C.C. context as well. In short, disclosure, transparency, criteria for conflicts of interest and explicit mechanisms for dealing with conflicts and bias.

2. The I.P.C.C. needs to clarify its role in providing advice (what advice? to whom?) and to whom it is accountable. Right now there is an “anything goes” impression. This would mean clarifying its role in advocacy, with respect to policy advice, and also, how its topics are chosen and experts selected.

In the language of my book, the I.P.C.C. could simultaneously play the role of a science arbiter and honest broker of policy options. But to do so would require some significant institutional reform. Right now it operates as a “stealth issue advocate” — that is, hiding advocacy in the cloth of science."

http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/26/from-inside-and-out-climate-panel-pushed-to-change/