Shot with its own gun

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
474,
Page:
541
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/474541a
Published online

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change must implement changes now to regain lost credibility or it will remain an easy target for critics seeking to score cheap points.

For more than 20 years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has performed the essential and time-consuming task of pooling and making publicly accessible the evolving knowledge base gleaned from climate-change research. Its efforts were rewarded in 2007 with the Nobel Peace Prize — not bad for what is basically a voluntary organization staffed by thousands of working scientists. But in the past two years, the IPCC has displayed a talent for manoeuvring itself into embarrassing situations, making itself an easy target for critics and climate sceptics.

The problems began in late 2009, when it was reported that the IPCC's fourth assessment report, published two years earlier, mistakenly claimed that all Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035. The subsequent fallout seriously damaged the IPCC's credibility, and was exacerbated by the inept attempts of the group's chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, to contain the crisis. A subsequent review of the organization's governance and policies saw it commit to a number of wide-ranging reforms.

This month, the IPCC is in the crosshairs again. The revelation that a Greenpeace energy analyst helped to write a key chapter in the IPCC's Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation, released last month, sparked widespread criticism across the blogosphere. Compared with the glacier faux pas, the latest incident is trivial. But it should remind the IPCC that its recently reworked policies and procedures need to be implemented, visibly and quickly.

In response to the glacier blunder, the IPCC pledged greater caution in the processes it uses to select scientific experts and to evaluate grey literature, and to make sure that (unpaid) work for the panel does not clash with interests arising from the professional affiliations of its staff and contributing authors (see Nature 473, 261; 2011). But it has failed to make clear when this new conflict-of-interest policy will come into effect and whom it will cover. It needs to do so — and fast.

This is the only way that the organization can counter recurring claims that it is less policy-neutral than its mandate from the United Nations obliges it to be. In particular, it needs to make clear the position for the working groups on climate-change impacts and adaptation (the science group adopted a rigid conflict-of-interest policy last year). Pachauri is on record as saying that the new conflict-of-interest policy will not apply retrospectively to the hundreds of authors already selected for the IPCC's fifth assessment report, due in 2014. This is unacceptable. He should make it a priority to ensure that the rules cover everyone involved — including himself.

“The IPCC should reconsider how it frames its findings.”

Claims in the blogosphere that Greenpeace 'dictated' the IPCC's renewable-energy report are vastly exaggerated. In fact, the Greenpeace writer was one of six authors of a peer-reviewed paper that examined an extreme scenario of favourable economic conditions that allowed the maximum possible take-up of renewable energy sources by 2050. Although the scenario is optimistic — and no doubt in line with the agenda at Greenpeace HQ — its inclusion is entirely justified. How else could the report answer the question of how much renewable energy would be possible under different economic assumptions?

Greenpeace probably fights just as hard to promote its values as the fossil-fuel lobby does for its own interests. But in principle there is nothing wrong with asking experts from either side to contribute to the IPCC's reports — even though the reports represent a supposedly value-free extension of academic science. But by neglecting to ask the Greenpeace-linked author of the extreme scenario in question to disclose his affiliation and possible conflicts of interest openly and formally, the IPCC recklessly exposed itself to its critics.

The IPCC's vulnerability to such attacks should also prompt it to reconsider how it frames its findings. Journalists and critics alike gravitate towards extreme claims. So when the IPCC's press material for the May report prominently pushed the idea that renewables could provide “close to 80%” of the world's energy needs by 2050, it was no surprise that it was this figure that made headlines — and made waves. The IPCC would have saved itself a lot of trouble and some unwarranted criticism had it made the origins of this scenario explicit.

There is no escaping the fact that the IPCC operates in a latently hostile environment. Its critics are vocal, frequently melodramatic and unlikely to surrender the limelight any time soon. The IPCC has to stop handing them ammunition on a plate.

Comments

  1. Report this comment #24749

    Jagadeesh A. said:

    Excellent Editorial on Climate Change and need for IPCC credibility reports. Of late IPCC has become a Centre of Criticism which needs to be dispelled by IPCC.

  2. Report this comment #24750

    Jagadeesh A. said:

    Excellent Editorial. I entirely agree with you on the need to establish its credibility by IPCC in its reports as IPCC has become a Centre of criticism of late.

  3. Report this comment #24769

    Geoff Russell said:

    The Greenpeace association is a minor reason for criticising the Special Report. A much more serious reason is that the headlined conclusion simply isn't credible. The conclusion requires that the energy poor stay energy poor and that the less-poor stop doing what the less-poor have been doing for thousands of years ... engage in various degrees of profligate energy use as a matter of demonstration of power and prestige. We need solutions that don't rely on a total transformation of the psychology of a vast proportion of the population. Just look around any University ... educated intelligent people who have all the skills to understand climate change. Do they refrain from overseas holidays, overseas conferences, overseas consulting jobs? Do they drive modest vehicles, live in small energy efficient houses and eat no or only small amounts of animal products? No. They live the lives that many others aspire to and those lives require prodigious resources and energy.

  4. Report this comment #24770

    Manola Brunet said:

    Disappointing, falsely balanced, ridiculous, biased and obscurely politically orientated editorial!
    For me there is not any doubt that this Nature editorial is undeservedly and artificially inflating the ?hostile environment? that IPCC has to face and avertedly or inadvertently is making the job to the IPCC contrarian lobbies, which have clear and politically motivated agendas to stop not only any action against anthropogenic climate change, if not also to obstruct, and if possible to avoid, that the most comprehensive scientific assessments that IPCC has been channelling are carried out. This editorial is not only full of very questionable claims that only reflect political opinions that have been many times voiced by the denialist blogosphere (e.g. the inept attempts, a talent for manoeuvring itself into embarrassing situations, seriously damaged the IPCC's credibility, it has failed to make clear, a new conflict-of-interest, unacceptable, recklessly.., supposedly), if not also contains inaccurate, contradictory and obscure assumptions (?The problems began in late 2009, when it was reported?? a very charitable way of calling the orchestrated campaign against climate change science), along with useless and costly in wasting scientists' time recommendations ("IPCC should reconsider how it frames its findings" or proceed to assess potential conflict of interest among their thousands of volunteers contributors whatever the cost and the results are) and repeated calls for prompt and quick IPCC reaction to the denialist machine claims.

    Contradictorily, for the Editorial board the denialist claim of Greenpeace 'dictated' the IPCC's renewable-energy report is "trivial and exaggerated" but they don?t doubt in echoing it, recalling the wrong IPCC claim of ?Hilamlaya glaciers? once again (one baseless claim among thousands of correct and well-based ones) timely corrected by IPCC long time ago, and accuse the IPCC of not handling it properly and promptly in the way that denialists had would like: reckoning a conflict-of-interest because a report contain results from a peer-reviewed study that has been co-authorised by a member of Greenpeace (what will be next: declare conflict of interest because you are a republican or a democrat voter?), besides of making the IPCC responsible of how the media coped with that news. Ridiculous! Nature comparing Greenpeace and fossil-fuel lobbies agendas ! Falsely balanced and tendentious, at least! The IPCC is in the crosshairs only in the minds of these editorialists and in the ones of the oil-funded campaigners, not in the minds of these thousand scientists contributing to the IPCC assessments. Sorry, but this issue only matter to the denialist machine and its supporters, which fortunately are mostly ignored by scientists and general public.

  5. Report this comment #24771

    Dan Luke said:

    Tone trolling from Nature? Does the journal not understand that climate is the fiercest battleground for the preservation of science from the assaults of ignorance, and that the enemies of science care nothing for genuine credibility?

    Holding the IPCC to impossibly rigorous standards in hopes that the science-denying hordes will thereby lack for ammunition is fantasy. The science community must abandon such defensive postures and go on the attack.

  6. Report this comment #24783

    B Venter said:

    That's a larf, isn't it? The criticism was not only about a Greenpeace employee being a lead author of a IPCC report reviewing his own work. That is just wrong, even if he was one or 20 of the lead authors. That is a conflict of interest. The criticism is alos about IPCC's press release about the report, one month in advance, which stated " Close to 80% of the world's energy need can be met from renewables " as if that is a fact. That was a misleading statement. The report referenced by IPCC had 160 " scenarios ". These were only scenarios, not facts, not scientific experiments, in fact not based on anything real. Out of these 160 scenarios, one scenario showed 77% as a figure. To use that and conflate it to 80% and issue a press release is completely unethical. If you use one scenario out of 160 and issue a report like that in any other field like finance or healthcare it would constitute a fraud and you could go to jail. For Nature to issue this apology of an editorial glibly overlooking that " fact " shows that the editorial is biased. If the editor could defend the report as based on a " peer-reviewed study " he could also have seen the study and understood what it said and what IPCC said. Would such standards be acceptable to Nature to publish? Can the editor be kind enough to respond to this point?

  7. Report this comment #24817

    Chris Q said:

    Dan Luke, #24771

    Sorry, but that's just the attitude that gets science a bad press. Playing politics is for politicians, whereas a the function of science is the search for and discovery of unvarnished truth, irrespective of how unpalatable or unpopular it may be. If no one listens to the results, then that's the world's problem, but it's not for science to rig the results to suit any agenda, or to sell any particular idea..

    Greenpiece have an agenda and often can't be taken seriously from a scientific point of view, imho, irrespective of whether they are right or wrong at times. Only when they grow up and stop varnishing the results can they be taken seriously. The IPCC become tainted by association, but they too have an agenda, it seems..

    Nature is quite correct, imho, to demand the most rigid scientific process and and quite correct to say so when this has not been met...

  8. Report this comment #24844

    Philippe Rosias said:

    May I quote from 'Merchants of Doubt' written by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway: 'Scientists are facing an ongoing misrepresentation of scientific evidence and historical facts. But science, as an independent source of authority and knowledge, has always had the capacity to challenge anyone who wishes to preserve, protect, or defend the status quo.'
    Therefore, scientists should be very aware to carefully watch over each scientific assessment and subsequent peer review processes, as it's the only way to disarm disinformation and denial.

  9. Report this comment #24862

    Nik From NYC said:

    Sea level is the best indicator of climate change since it involves much less noise to signal and worldwide data is available back over a century, not just northern hemisphere data. Yet actual instead of "corrected" sea level shows utterly no trend change for 150 years:

    http://k.min.us/idFxzI.jpg

  10. Report this comment #24992

    Jon Mitchelll said:

    It's not just the IPCC. It's the entire AGW movement esp. the American branch. Stop insulting your opponents, you need their votes for a carbon tax.

    AGW advocates need a NEW strategy. Why not BUY your opponents off instead? Thats what the LMAD plan does.

    1) If the solution to too much CO2 in the air is to use less fossil fuels, why is NOT the solution to too much federal debt to use less government?

    2) If the optimal amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is 350 ppm (current=389 ppm) because that is the maximum concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere under which life as we know it can continue, why is 18% of GDP (current =25% GDP) NOT the optimal size of the federal government since that is the size that most likely yields maximum economic growth?

    Think about it. Progressives and Conservatives are actually making the same apocalyptic argument albeit on different issues. They both make good arguments for action. But the public is yawningly uninterested in AGW and unwilling to make the hard choices on America?s fiscal problems. Buying off the opposition is the American way so why not use the system we have to get the outcome you want. And that?s what Let?s Make A Deal?The Book/The Plan is all about: getting the outcome you want.

    Google LMADster for more?

  11. Report this comment #25035

    Jami Hossain said:

    Criticism of IPCC in a leading Journal such as Nature could lead to perceptions that the scientific work being carried out by this body is shoddy and hence its reports and observations on policy implications should not be taken seriously. This may obscure or blur the larger picture that the policy makers at the highest levels should see.
    That global warming has set in and that sea level is rising and that glaciers are melting are established scientific facts that require mitigation efforts at an International level. The Himalayan glaciers may not vanish exectly by 2035 but there is no doubt that they are diminishing and could soon lead to a crisis in the Indian sub-continent. In this issue of Nature itself a news snippet is carried on ocean levels (Proc. Natl Acad Sci. USA; doi:10.1073/pnas.1015619108 (2011)
    IPCC is a body that has to influence policy makers to take actions to prevent adverse impacts of global warming. If IPCC has involved someone from Green Peace to write in the IPCC report, what's wrong with it. It is unlikely that IPCC will get experts on renewable energy from oil or coal sector. Green Peace understands renewable energy better than IEA. Expert papers on Renewable Energy can only be written by those who worked in this field. Such people are bound to be associated with industry or other associations that lobby for renewable energy.
    On going through, the editorial I looked up the Wind Energy section of the IPCC report (http://srren.ipcc-wg3.de/report/IPCC_SRREN_Ch07) and found that it is a well researched document referring to a very large number of scientific references.
    A very recent study on Wind Energy Potential in India (Hossain 2011, doi:10.1016/j.renene.2011.04.017) has shown that the potential is far in excess of what was being assumed earlier. While earlier it was assumed that there is a potential of only 48GW, it now seems that this potential is of the of the order of 4000 GW.
    The IPCC observation, therefore, that 80% energy needs can be met by renewable energy by 2050 may not be wrong. This will go a long way in mitigating climate change.
    The editors of Nature should keep in mind that what they write can mould opinions and care should be taken that this does not harm the larger interests to protect environment.
    (The commentator is member of the Governing Council of Indian Wind Energy Association and a member of the National Council of Indian Wind Power Association)

  12. Report this comment #25037

    Jami Hossain said:

    Criticism of IPCC in a leading Journal such as Nature could lead to perceptions that the scientific work being carried out by this body is shoddy and hence its reports and observations on policy implications should not be taken seriously. This may obscure or blur the larger picture that the policy makers at the highest levels should see.
    That global warming has set in and that sea level is rising and that glaciers are melting are established scientific facts that require mitigation efforts at an International level. The Himalayan glaciers may not vanish exectly by 2035 but there is no doubt that they are diminishing and could soon lead to a crisis in the Indian sub-continent. In this issue of Nature itself a news snippet is carried on ocean levels (Proc. Natl Acad Sci. USA; doi:10.1073/pnas.1015619108 (2011)
    IPCC is a body that has to influence policy makers to take actions to prevent adverse impacts of global warming. If IPCC has involved someone from Green Peace to write in the IPCC report, what's wrong with it. It is unlikely that IPCC will get experts on renewable energy from oil or coal sector. Green Peace understands renewable energy better than IEA. Expert papers on Renewable Energy can only be written by those who worked in this field. Such people are bound to be associated with industry or other associations that lobby for renewable energy.
    On going through, the editorial I looked up the Wind Energy section of the IPCC report (http://srren.ipcc-wg3.de/report/IPCC_SRREN_Ch07) and found that it is a well researched document referring to a very large number of scientific references.
    A very recent study on Wind Energy Potential in India (Hossain 2011, doi:10.1016/j.renene.2011.04.017) has shown that the potential is far in excess of what was being assumed earlier. While earlier it was assumed that there is a potential of only 48GW, it now seems that this potential is of the of the order of 4000 GW.
    The IPCC observation, therefore, that 80% energy needs can be met by renewable energy by 2050 may not be wrong. This will go a long way in mitigating climate change.
    The editors of Nature should keep in mind that what they write can mould opinions and care should be taken that this does not harm the larger interests to protect environment.

    (The commentator is member of the Governing Council of Indian Wind Energy Association and a member of the National Council of Indian Wind Power Association)

  13. Report this comment #25266

    Saumitra Mukherjee said:

    Climate change report should be more scientific and more honest

    Saumitra Mukherjee, School of Environmental sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi-110067, India Email: saumitramukherjee3@gmail.com

    Shot with its own gun published in Nature Editorial Nature 474, 541(30 June 2011) doi: 10.1038/474541a mentioned about the mistakes of the reporting of the melting of glaciers by 2035 by the members of the Intergovernmental panel of Climate Change (IPCC). It has been stated that the claim was a mistake. The same mistake was done by the award giving agencies. Climate change and glaciological studies should be done by expert geologists with sufficient knowledge and training in that subject. Major problem is that the real field geologists of glaciology division of Geological Survey of India are not being included in this team.
    The IPCC should consider the latest research of the influence of Cosmic rays and variable Sun1 along with the global warming and hidden tectonic activity in the Himalayan region, which are also contributing towards snow accumulation, melting and glacial retreat and advancement2.

    References

    1.Mukherjee Saumitra. (2008).Cosmic Influence on Sun-Earth Environment. Sensors 2008, 8, 7736-7752; DOI: 10.3390/s8127736 www.mdpi.com/journal/sensors

    2. Mukherjee, Saumitra (2008). Return of Kosi river induced by Tibet earthquake .Nature Precedings < http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/npre.2008.2278.2> (2008). http://www.nature.com

  14. Report this comment #27076

    Jim Hodgen said:

    The real issue is that no thinking person can support the organization with Pachauri at its head and no reputable scientist can participate with Pachauri's cronies and pecuniary interests so deeply involved in the IPCC.

    His leadership has been pathetic and rife with no only slipshod but thoroughly dishonest at so many levels that there is no recovery. If the trend is for a couple of Journal editors to resign over an unpopular paper, what is the appropriate fate for someone with an a mountain of organizational, personal, financial and ethical failures like this individual?

    The IPCC is bankrupt and needs new science in it to have relevance. Clearly Pachauri is a hopeless and genuinely insulting option for that to occur. If he is continued in his role, I would not be surprised to see several large nations drop funding for this and other UN programs. The graft and failure has to stop if the IPCC is to regain relevance and substance.

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