Battling for science takes its toll on UN climate panel stalwarts

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A leading climate scientist is to leave the United Nations’ expert panel, and a second is considering his future with the body. Both had been at the centre of attempts last year by US energy lobbyists to discredit the panel's conclusion that human activities are warming the planet.

Tom Wigley, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, has decided he will no longer take part in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which periodically reviews the world's climate change research.

His colleague Ben Santer, an atmospheric physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, says he has yet to decide whether to return to the IPCC. Santer was the main focus of a campaign last year to discredit the science of climate change (see Nature 381, 195; 1997).

Wigley says he feels his time is better spent “doing science, rather than reviewing it”. Scientists spend too long on the review process, he says, when they should be involved in research that will help to “prove conclusively that there is anthropogenic climate change”.

Santer says a part of him now wants to steer clear of the IPCC. “It has been tremendously distressing and destroyed my family.” He says that the IPCC may be better off by choosing another scientist not connected with the previous report. But he says he has learnt much from the experience of writing a report with political implications, and will not repeat his mistakes if given a second chance.

The latest IPCC report concludes that the “balance of evidence” suggests that human activity is warming the planet, and formed the basis of the Kyoto protocol agreed last week (see above). But opponents of the protocol have used the apparent discrepancy in the fact that the degree of warming from surface data is greater than that from satellite instruments to argue for a delay in action to slow down man-made climate change.

This discrepancy seems likely to continue to be used in attempts to block or delay the protocol's ratification in the US Senate, and Wigley says that finding the reasons for it should now be a priority.

Both Wigley and Santer are also critical of a recent IPCC decision to appoint ‘review editors’ to liaise between scientists and authors of research, and to sign-off reports after they have been peer reviewed. Wigley says this will increase the time spent on reviews, and may deter people from volunteering to take part in the IPCC process. Santer says it will turn the task of being an IPCC author “into a full-time job”.

Sir John Houghton, chairman of IPCC's science working group, is sympathetic to Wigley's decison not to be part of the IPCC. But he says that the IPCC process is important in bringing scientists together, and focusing ideas and resources on specific problems. “I hope we will continue to get leading scientists,” he says. “If they get disillusioned with the IPCC process, then the quality of the reports goes down. That will be bad for science and for policy.”

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Masood, E. Battling for science takes its toll on UN climate panel stalwarts. Nature 390, 649 (1997). https://doi.org/10.1038/37689

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