Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise has been watching the climate world since 2009. What she sees isn't pretty.

Another IPCC Train Wreck: Species Extinction (Part 2)

5 of 10 lead authors have links to the World Wildlife Fund (WG2-Chapter4)

A few days I ago I wrote about the chapter in the 2007 Nobel-winning climate bible that concludes 20-30% of all the Earth’s species are at risk of extinction due to global warming. I explained that the research paper on which this finding depends has been demolished by experts in that field. According to one of the world’s pre-eminent biologists, the 2004 Thomas study isn’t just flawed it’s “the worst paper I have ever read in a major scientific journal.”

So now imagine you are among the 31 individuals assigned to write this chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. You know that the purpose of the IPCC is to “provide rigorous and balanced scientific information” – just like it says on the website.

Is there any way you can cite the findings of the Thomas paper and yet not tell your readers about the controversy it generated?

Is it honest to neglect to mention that the same journal that published the Thomas paper followed up six months later with not one, not two, but three critiques?

Is it scientific to fail to alert your readers to the fact that another harsh appraisal of some 6,000 words in length was authored by a scholar at Oxford University?

Do you not have a responsibility to explain, as does renowned biologist Daniel Botkin, that: “Specialists know that theoretical models…should not be taken literally“?

Can a chapter really be considered an objective overview if it lists 917 documents as references yet neglects these contrary perspectives? Does critique number one appear in the references? Nope. Critique number two? Nyet. Critique number three? Na. The Oxford gent’s paper? Not a chance.

cow manure


So who wrote this chapter? Its two most senior people (coordinating lead authors) are Andreas Fischlin, a biologist from Switzerland, and Guy Midgley, a biologist from South Africa.

Andreas Fischlin
Prior to his involvement with the 2007 edition of the climate bible, Fischlin also helped write the second (1995) and third (2001) editions. He has been appointed once again to take part in the updated version currently getting underway. His academic bio, however, tells us he has long been a member of the Swiss delegation “in all UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) negotiations.” The UNFCCC is an international treaty. In others words, Fischlin is no disinterested scientist. He is involved in climate change politicking at the very highest levels.

Forty coordinating lead authors (2 per chapter) helped produce the climate bible’s Working Group 2 report. When that working group’s findings were presented to the UNFCCC in May 2007, only four people out of these 40 were selected to make that presentation. Fischlin and his fellow coordinating lead author Midgley both landed a role in this decidedly political affair.

Later, Fischlin participated in a three-day United Nations conference dedicated to global warming and the tourism industry where he made statements such as:

Tourism has to contribute to [emissions reduction]: it’s a cause of the problem and has to take up its share.

When these comments were reported by the news media, Fischlin was described as “a leading scientist on the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change.” The public was not told that his expertise is in ecological modeling – not tourism. Nor was it advised of his other role as a science politician.

Guy Midgley
Would it surprise you to learn that the second senior person for this chapter – Guy Midgley – is, in fact, a co-author of the notorious Thomas paper? (Another Thomas co-author, Lesley Hughes, also worked on the chapter.)

The IPCC has no conflict-of-interest guidelines. Instead, it seems to believe its authors are capable of remaining rigorously objective whenever the merits of their own work are being evaluated. A total of 23 papers in which Midgley was involved were cited. The public has no way of knowing how the quality of the other 22 compares to that of the soundly thrashed Thomas paper.

Midgley has once again been tapped to serve as a coordinating lead author for the upcoming edition of the climate bible. It’s rather a mystery, though, how his expertise in “plant ecophysiology and stress tolerance” equips him to be one of two senior people for a chapter examining “Adaptation opportunities, constraints and limitations.” We’re told the world’s top experts write IPCC reports. But the closer I look, the less I believe this to be the case (see here and here).

Jeff Price
Eight people were assigned the role of lead author in the species extinction chapter. American biologist Jeff Price appears first on the list. He holds scientific degrees and teaches at universities. But that doesn’t alter the fact that his orientation is overtly activist rather than strictly scientific.

In 2002 he was the director of climate change impact studies for the American Bird Conservancy – an advocacy group. None of the critiques of the Thomas paper may have made it into this IPCC chapter’s list of references, but a Birdwatcher’s Guide to Global Warming co-written by Price and published by his employer did. Price has worked for the United Nations Environmental Program and is now employed by yet another activist group, the World Wildlife Fund.

When interviewed in 2007, Price told a reporter:

Many of us believe we are on the threshold of a massive extinction event. [italics added]

But as any detective will tell you, there are opinions and then there are facts. Price talked about major ecosystem collapse before uttering the sort of sentiment you’d expect to hear from a detached and circumspect scientific mind. He hoped, he said, that the soon-to-be released IPCC report would “finally wake people up to the sheer magnitude of the problem.”

Top Experts?
Revisiting the world’s top experts question for a moment, there is little indication that Price meets that threshold. Moreover, it is worth noting that those who worked on this chapter include not just Fischlin (the science politician) but two individuals whose doctorates were supervised by him. Lead author Harald Bugmann‘s thesis involved “a simulation study” of how forests might react to climate change. Contributing author Dimitrios Gyalistras‘ thesis involved ecosystem models.

Both of these gentlemen are computer modelers. Their expertise involves virtual reality rather than the real thing. In the case of Gyalistras, his CV tells us he received his PhD in 1997 and that he spent 2002-2003 traveling. It says that between 2003-2007 he was a “freelance scientist” involved in a handful of projects. There is no reason to believe he isn’t a marvelous human being and a fine computer programmer. The question is whether he could remotely be considered one of the world’s top experts when he worked on the IPCC report during 2005 and 2006.

The WWF Connection
To sum up, therefore, we have a chapter that contributed a crucial finding to the 2007 edition of the climate bible. The claim that 20-30% of the Earth’s species are at risk of extinction has been a hallmark of  IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri’s public speeches ever since (see Part 1 here). That chapter’s conclusions appear to have been accorded such high importance within the IPCC itself that both coordinating authors were invited to make presentations to political and diplomatic delegates.

Since I’ve begun researching the climate debate I’ve discovered that there are scientists and then there are activist scientists. The second category don’t behave in a scrupulously neutral, objective, and disinterested manner – what one expects when one hears the word “scientist”. They don’t tell you the facts and let you decide for yourself. Instead, they have strong views about what’s happening in the world. They have strong views about what should be done about it. Those views, however, are political opinions – not scientific conclusions.

If climate change does, indeed, represent a planetary emergency we have a right to expect the highest level of professionalism from those who investigate it. When a document is as important as the climate bible, the scientists who produce it cannot get into bed with activist groups. Justice, as they say, must not only be done – it must be seen to be done.

Yet five out of 10 of this chapter’s most senior personnel have documented links to the World Wildlife Fund. Fischlin and Midgley both sit on a WWF advisory panel. So does lead author Rik Leemans and lead author Brij Gopal. As has already been mentioned, lead author Jeff Price is currently a WWF employee.

Furthermore, three additional personnel (who served as contributing authors) are also WWF advisory panel members – Antoine Guisan, Christian Körner and Lesley Hughes.

There is no way to know, therefore, which sections of this IPCC chapter represent the political opinions of a particular clique and which sections are, in fact, scientifically sound. As IPCC chairman Pachauri would say, this chapter belongs in the dustbin.

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