Thursday, December 1, 2011

Fix it or fold it

FP Comment
Ross McKitrick

If the IPCC’s flaws can’t be corrected, we should leave 

For many years, attempts to encourage debate on global warming science or policy have run into the obstacle that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued definitive statements, and therefore—the reasoning goes—the era of debate is over. The IPCC is made up of thousands of the world’s top scientists, it has one of the most rigorous and exhaustive review processes in the history of science, and the oversight by 195 member governments ensures balance, transparency and accountability. Or so we are told.

These claims about the IPCC are not true, but until relatively recently few were willing to question what they were told. Things began to change in 2009 with the leak of the Climategate emails, which prompted some observers to begin questioning their assumptions about the IPCC. Then this fall,

Canadian investigative journalist Donna Laframboise released her book The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate Expert, a superb exposé of the IPCC that shows convincingly that the IPCC has evolved into an activist organization bearing little resemblance to the picture of scientific probity painted by its promoters and activist allies.

On Monday, news emerged of another release of thousands of new Climategate emails, with early indications that some of them add to concerns about the IPCC that arose from the 2009 disclosures.
I am pleased to announce the publication of a report I have written that provides systematic detail on the procedures of the IPCC and makes the case for reforming them. My study, called What is Wrong With the IPCC? A Proposal for Radical Reform, was published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation in the U.K., and includes a foreword by the Hon. John Howard, former prime minister of Australia.

The first thing to note about this report is that it is not about science. It is about the policies, procedures and administrative structures in the IPCC. A third of the report consists simply of explanations of how the IPCC works. The more people learn such details, the more they will see that the IPCC does not come close to living up to the hype.

Most people would not consider themselves sufficiently well-trained to adjudicate conflicting claims on the science of global warming. But you don’t have to be a scientist to be capable of understanding when an investigative procedure is biased. The IPCC assessment process has material defects, which are sufficiently serious and numerous to put into question the soundness of some of its most heavily promoted claims.

What are some of the flaws? IPCC report-writing teams are cherry-picked in an opaque process by a secretive bureau in Geneva, with no effective requirements to ensure representation of diverse viewpoints. Environmentalist campaign groups are heavily overrepresented in the resulting author lists.

Conflicts of interest abound throughout the report-writing process, whereby select authors are asked to review their own work and that of their critics, inevitably concluding in their own favour. The expert review process has become little more than elegant stagecraft, creating an illusion of adversarial cross-examination while concealing the reality of unchecked author bias. Unlike in regular academic peer review procedures, IPCC authors are allowed to overrule reviewers, and even to rewrite the text after the close of the peer review process.

In my report I provide case studies that trace key sections of past IPCC reports through the drafting, review and publication stages, showing how evidence was manipulated or changed after the close of peer review. Some of these incidents had already been documented, but some of them can only now be fully explained because of the disclosure of email traffic among IPCC authors in both the Climategate archives and in files obtained under recent U.K. freedom of information rulings.

I also look at the review of IPCC procedures undertaken last year by the Inter-Academy Council (IAC). The IAC report picked up on some of the major problems I also identify, but the task of devising and implementing reforms fell to the IPCC plenary panel, an unwieldy and passive assembly of delegates from 195 member states, whose manifest indifference allowed the IPCC leadership to gut the reforms before they were ever implemented.

My report presents a set of reform proposals that are based on the simple notion that the IPCC assessment process should be made as rigorous as an ordinary academic journal. The surprise for many readers will be how radical the required changes would be.

In a surprise, and fast-breaking development, Monday morning saw the release of more than 5,000 fresh emails of climate scientists connected with the U.K. Climate Research Unit. They will be examined over the next few days with intense interest. Having read several hundred so far, most are simply the usual traffic among active scholars. But the ones that pertain to the IPCC process fully support the contentions in my report.

For instance, I discuss the problem that IPCC chapter authors are able to recruit contributing authors (CAs) in an opaque process that does not ensure a diversity of views. The resulting uniformity is obvious simply from looking at the list of authors, but we can now see the confirmatory evidence in the email traffic. In a pair of emails (nos. 0714 and 3205), ­IPCC lead author Phil Jones goes through lists of possible CAs with his IPCC coauthor Kevin Trenberth, declaring “Getting people we know and trust is vital.” He then categorizes his recommendations based, not on whether the person is the most qualified but on whether the person is “on the right side” (namely agrees with him), or whether he “trusts” him or not. At one point he dismisses a particular expert who “has done a lot but I don’t trust him.” This kind of cronyism is shown by the emails to be rampant in the IPCC.

In principle I think the IPCC could be fixed, but nobody should underestimate how much needs to change. The chief obstacle to reform is that it is governed by an unwieldy 195-member plenary panel that appears to be apathetic and overly deferential to the IPCC Bureau it is supposed to oversee. To some extent the Canadian delegation has been a lone voice seeking improvements to procedures, but such concerns have hitherto been ignored.

To those countries that truly seek objective, balanced and rigorous information about climate science on which to base momentous policy decisions, my key recommendation is to begin pushing for reforms, but not to wait forever. If the ­IPCC cannot be fixed quickly, governments that are serious about making good climate-policy decisions should be prepared to withdraw from it and create a new assessment body, free of the serious defects of the current model.

Financial Post
Ross McKitrick is a professor of ­economics at the University of Guelph.

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