This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.
Canadian climate modeler Andrew Weaver and Australian palaeontologist Tim Flannery have a great deal in common. Both of them have stepped far beyond the bounds of their narrow scientific specialties and have become outspoken climate change activists.
Most of what they talk about is actually the stuff of politics, but they like to remind us that they are scientists – thus implying that their opinions should carry more weight than those of mere mortals.
A few months ago, Weaver called Canada’s Prime Minister a “dictator,” and compared our country to the tragic hellhole that is now Zimbabwe. Why? Because our Senate voted down what would have been an economically ruinous piece of climate legislation.
Flannery, too, is in the habit of giving media interviews in which both he and the interviewer pretend that a person who knows a good deal about dinosaur bones has some special insight into not just Australian politics, but the American and international political scene, as well.
It turns out, though, that these gentleman have their differences. In his 2008 book, Keeping Our Cool, Weaver says this about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):
The writing of the IPCC assessment reports is without a doubt the most intensive and rigorous scientific process in which I have been involved. It is written by leading scientists from around the world and reviewed extensively by a range of individuals…It is only at the last phase, where the “Summary for Policymakers” must be unanimously approved, that politics rears its ugly head. However, even here it is constrained by what is contained within the report itself. Ultimately, the “Summary for Policymakers” is slightly weaker coming out of the final plenary than it was going into it. [bold added, pp. 108-09]
Flannery takes a dimmer view. In his 2005 book, The Weather Makers, he writes:
I met scientists who were IPCC members at the Hadley Centre in late 2004. They described mind-numbing days devoted to arguing about single, seemingly irrelevant words or sentences. Every word in the organization’s mammoth reports, they asserted, had been debated, with Saudi Arabia, the United States, and China – the world’s largest oil exporter, oil user, and burner of coal, respectively – eager to water down wording and to slow progress. (pp. 245-46)
…the pronouncements of the IPCC do not represent mainstream science, nor even good science, but lowest-common-denominator-science – and of course even that is delivered at glacial speed. [bold added, p. 246]
Interesting, n’est pas?
For the record, Flannery has misunderstood the IPCC process. As Weaver says, it is only the Summary for Policymakers documents that are haggled over line-by-line by political delegates. (See my recent post If IPCC Meetings Were Televised here.) If the 3,000-page report released in 2007 had required unanimous word-for-word approval they’d still be at it.
I am not for one moment suggesting that this process is acceptable, by the way. As Weaver admits on page 107 of his book, the Summaries for Policymakers are “pretty much all that is read by political leaders.”
What this means is that an organization that the public has been told is a scientific body produces a range of products. Yet the category of products that everyone agrees is most likely to be read by the world’s decision makers (and by the media) aren’t scientific documents at all. Instead, they’re the result of an extended negotiation involving political delegates from around the world.
Flannery expresses concern that the energy industry is given a voice during Summary for Policymaker negotiations via the delegations of certain countries. What he doesn’t mention is that environmental groups exert a parallel influence at these meetings via the “assistance” they provide to developing countries (see page 2 of this article for an excellent discussion of that matter – page 2 backup link here).
In his recently-published book, False Alarm: Global Warming – Facts Versus Fiction, former Canadian journalist Paul MacRae remarks:
No self-respecting journalist in a democratic country would allow his or her stories to be submitted to ‘review by governments,’ nor would readers in a free society willingly buy a newspaper whose stories were subject to ‘review by governments’ — that’s something we’d expect in a dictatorship. Yet, this is precisely what climate scientists agree to when they contribute to the IPCC. (p. 67)
From this perspective, Flannery’s instincts are the most admirable. He recognizes that the IPCC is a political football and is repelled. Weaver, on the other hand, tries to convince himself (and us) that all the UN-grade intrigue connected to the IPCC doesn’t really matter.