Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

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

Perceptions of Pachauri

What do IPCC insiders really think of chairman Rajendra Pachauri?

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For me, Rajendra Pachauri illustrates perfectly the surreal nature of the climate change discussion. It is astonishing that a body as important and influential as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been chaired for the past nine years by a man who routinely says things about his organization that simply aren’t true. (See my many, many blog posts on that topic.)

But my perceptions are one thing. Those of IPCC insiders are another. Last year, a committee of the InterAcademy Council investigated the IPCC. In the process it distributed a questionnaire that was completed by 232 individuals. Some of these people have no direct experience of the IPCC process. Others have had only peripheral involvement as expert reviewers. Still others are government representatives.

The largest group of respondents – roughly two-thirds – are individuals who have served as IPCC contributing authors, lead authors, coordinating lead authors, review editors, and bureau members (a small group of administrative positions). Many of these people have filled multiple IPCC roles over the years.

Recently, all questionnaire answers were released as one massive 3 mb 678-page PDF. I’ve been focusing on the responses provided by IPCC insiders. (All names were removed prior to the document being made public.) What they have to say about Pachauri and his leadership is illuminating (all bolding added by me):

The fact that the IPCC Chair let the issue of small errors in the WG2 AR4 assessment fester without taking any direct action is inexcusable since it would have been so easy to address. (p. 5)

…the IPCC Chair did not step in to defend the authors or the IPCC process. This must be one of the main jobs of the IPCC chair… (p. 6)

So far, the IPCC management and secretariats have performed admirably. (p. 18)

The election of the Chair is now highly political…and can result in Chairs with little scientific expertise… (p. 19)

The IPCC HQ (Chair & Sec) also do not have the necessary expertise to make sound judgments on errata and how to fix. Thus this is a currently dysfunctional part of the IPCC. (p. 20)

The IPCC has to deal with any suggestion of conflicts of interest starting with the Chairman. (p.56)

I think there is some merit in also considering fixed terms for the Chair. (p. 63)

The Committee though may…advise the IPCC leadership to remain confined to science and avoid rhetoric. (p. 81)

IPCC leadership needs very serious and urgent introspection, correction and also advise. [sic] (p. 82)

Dr. Pachauri, who had nothing to do with writing AR4, is not skillful (to say the least) at communicating climate science, in part because he does not come from this scientific field and does not know the subject in depth. (pp. 86-87)

Rachendra Pachauri’s policy advocacy activities have substantially contributed to the loss of IPCC credibility. The IPCC should undertake a formal program for educating the co-chairs and lead authors on…expectations for ethical and responsible behavior. (p. 100)

…I think the current IPCC leadership has had a tendency to enter into value issues and become policy prescriptive. I think it is important that these boundaries are not transgressed. (p. 113)

The IPCC could also adopt a code of conduct for bureau members (including the Chair, Working groups and [Technical Support Units]). This code could prescribe that bureau members abstain from policy prescriptive statements in public, represent the IPCC reports accurately and require members to reveal any conflicts of interest. (pp. 116-117)

There are intrinsic difficulties with effective communication…In practice, there were ad hoc, inconsistent and often ill-advised public responses to criticism from the Chair, Bureau members and the secretariat. IPCC needs a professional communication function…This needs the authority to respond to urgent demands but also the wisdom to know when to stay silent and lower the temperature of debate. (p. 124)

The process also needs to recognize possible conflicts and failures (such as by the Chairman (Pachauri)). (p. 129)

…the award of the Peace Nobel prize to IPCC has catapulted the organization to very high visibility for a scientific assessment. In my view, this did not help with keeping the feet on the ground and making sure that most statements made by IPCC officers and leadership are limited to the underlying assessments rather than based on other evidence or even worse on personal opinions. (p. 162)

As IPCC matures, so should its management structure. I believe the Chairman of the [IPCC] should serve as a full time, paid employee of IPCC. I also believe IPCC needs a conflict of interest policy for the [IPCC] Chair and each of the [working group] chairs. This is not meant to cast any aspersions on the current Chairs, but merely to recognize that every mature organization has such a policy for its executives. (p. 184)

…structures for decision-making within the bureau could be rendered more transparent. In particular, the responsibilities and roles of the IPCC Chair…should be more clearly defined…The nomination and election procedure of the IPCC Chair currently also lacks transparency. Priority criterion for selecting/electing the Chair ought to be outstanding contributions to climate change research. (p. 232)

For the election of the IPCC chair there are no explicit selection criteria set. (p. 252)

…move to a paid full time IPCC Chair…A part time chair always has the challenge to avoid mixing his IPCC communication with that of his/ her other responsibilities. For a full time chair it is much more straightforward that he/ she stands for IPCC. (p.260)

Some representatives of the IPCC have not always stuck to the principle of the honest broker but have endorsed certain policies…A code of conduct for the Chairman and the Co-Chairs seems necessary. The Chairman of the IPCC and the Co-Chairs should not serve as national policy advisers nor should they serve as consultant[s] for private business. Otherwise conflicts of interests are inevitable. The IPCC has suffered a lot in the previous years from these conflicts of interests in its leadership. Admittedly, there was no code of conduct so far which could be used as reasonable guideline. (p. 275)

I sometimes think that the occasion – eg a [Conference of the Parties] plenary – forces a sensationalist approach by IPCC leadership – and as such IPCC comes across as activist as opposed to a group of sober scientists. This means that when mistakes are made the credibility of the entire process is questioned in an activist manner as well. I think IPCC needs to develop a far more considered communications approach – both in terms of its media statements as well in the words of its leadership. (p. 279)

The “Voodoo-science” quote of the IPCC chairman was a major communication blunder, which damaged the reputation not only of IPCC but of all climate scientists. Unfortunately a respectable consequence (retreat of and apology by chairman) was not drawn. (p. 303)  [info about the voodoo remark here]

More to the point, it seems to me that IPCC leadership, including the Chair…cannot help themselves. They frequently make policy prescriptive statements… (p. 341)

…IPCC gives mixed messages when its leadership makes policy prescriptive statements. This really should stop. (p. 347)

…I have been quite concerned that many in the IPCC leadership have in their public statements taken positions that go beyond the content of the assessments and veer on advocacy. This is not limited to the IPCC chair…I do think it would serve the credibility of the process well if there is a clear code of conduct for the IPCC management… (p. 366)

The chairman of IPCC, however, should be more independent (no advice to the own government, no involvement in a company involved in a similar field. (p. 388)

The chair of IPCC appeared not to acknowledge that mistakes were made and this damaged the integrity of the process. (p. 408)

…Patchauri [sic] has claimed that it is impossible that the IPCC makes mistakes and this is wrong and was not good to say. (p. 419)

…IPCC officials should refrain from any statement which is not taken from an approved report…Many criticims adressed to IPCC refer to statements attributed to it, while they cannot be found in any report. (p. 459)

…there is no mechanism to correct the IPCC Chair. If, for example, he oversteps his mandate and gives policy advice on behalf of the IPCC, if he says embarrassing things to journalists, or if he uses the IPCC to raise funds for his home institution. (p. 544)

Communication tends to be catastrophic and is centered on the IPCC chairman. Therefore it crucially depends on the personality of the IPCC chairman. Presently, Pachauri is not doing a good job. (p. 555)

In addition, [the] chairman and secretary should be changed asap. They proved to be totally inadequate. (p. 555)

The policies to find and correct serious errors are well established in the IPCC. The leaders did not ensure that authors and review editors took them seriously. The leaders then further confounded matters by not immediately acknowledging the error… (p. 590)

IPCC could adopt a code of conduct for bureau members (including the Chair… prescribing that they abstain from policy prescriptive statements in public and towards the media. This would help to keep appropriate distance between science and policy…the IPCC-chair should show how they can afford living during IPCC to avoid conflicts of interest. (p. 645)

…people associated in some way with IPCC also wear many different hats – including the chairs and co-chairs. There is a need for a clear distinction between when they are speaking for themselves and for their institutes and when they are speaking in their role as IPCC officers. This is particularly important when the issues under discussion stray from advising policymakers to advocating policy. (pp. 668-669)

The comments above are the most encouraging signs I’ve seen from the IPCC. They suggest that thoughtful people recognize the gravity of the IPCC’s problems. Four of them independently tell investigators the body would benefit from a Code of Conduct that would govern the behaviour of the chair. Six point out that the IPCC currently lacks conflict-of-interest guidelines.

But since, as someone else observes, there’s currently no mechanism to correct the behaviour of the chair in the event that that person behaves inappropriately, merely adopting the above policies is not enough.

IPCC insiders think Pachauri’s handling of mistakes that have come to light in IPCC reports has been poor. They think he has undermined the IPCC’s credibility. A huge concern is that, while the IPCC is supposed to be “policy-neutral, never policy-prescriptive” (which means its reports should list the available options but not advance any in particular), Pachauri has a history of advocating all sorts of climate-change-fighting measures on the strength of his IPCC role.

This begs the question: if the chairman himself doesn’t abide by the rules, might other IPCC participants feel free to ignore them as well? Moreover, it leads to newspaper stories that begin like this:

Hotel guests should have their electricity monitored; hefty aviation taxes should be introduced to deter people from flying; and iced water in restaurants should be curtailed, the world’s leading climate scientist has told the Observer. [bold added]

Despite the fact that two IPCC insiders, above, say Pachauri lacks “the necessary expertise” to make sound judgments because “he does not come from this scientific field and does not know the subject in depth,” the UK’s Guardian newspaper nevertheless reverently describes him as the world’s leading climate scientist.

This is a prime example how the media, having long given the IPCC a free ride, has significantly contributed to these problems. (Walter Russell Mead persuasively makes that case here.)

Rather than peering at this large, politically-charged organization through a rigorous, fact-checking lens, rather than asking Pachauri why he is violating the IPCC’s explicit mandate to remain neutral, the world’s journalists have largely acted as his cheerleaders.

They now have an opportunity to redeem themselves. The earnest, honest voices of the individuals quoted above deserve to be heard. The public ought to know about them.

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