Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

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

Speeding Tickets and the IPCC

If you lived in a town in which speed limits were posted but everyone knew there were no traffic cops, would you obey the speed limit? Always? Every time you got behind the wheel? Even on those occasions when you were running late?

If you’re among the small percentage of human beings who can honestly answer in the affirmative, here’s question number two: how many people do you personally know who’d behave as diligently as you would?

The amazing thing about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is that it inhabits a world without checks-and-balances. No internal – or external – enforcement mechanisms exist. Sure, the IPCC has taken the time to write down some rules of the road. But it has never hired any traffic cops. There have never been any spot checks, radar readings, or speeding tickets – all of which are necessary if one actually expects the rules to be followed.

A few days ago blogger Hilary Ostrov pointed out that a document prepared for an upcoming IPCC meeting is proposing that a critical rule governing the use of non-peer-reviewed material be abandoned.

Here’s a bit of background: The chairman of the IPCC has promulgated the myth that IPCC conclusions are based solely on info found in academic, peer-reviewed journals. We now know that this is not the case. In response, some IPCC partisans have retreated a bit, pointing to the fact that IPCC procedures say it’s OK to use non-peer-reviewed sources. Indeed, the very bottom of the very last page of this 14-page IPCC procedures document reads:

Non-peer-reviewed sources will be listed in the reference sections of IPCC Reports. These will be integrated with references for the peer-reviewed sources. These will be integrated with references to the peer reviewed sources stating how the material can be accessed, but will be followed by a statement that they are not published.

There’s nothing elegant or precise about these sentences. Non-peer-reviewed and not published seem to be used interchangeably. But a magazine issued by the World Wildlife Fund can surely be considered “published” in the normal sense of that word.

The essential point seems to be that non-peer-reviewed material is supposed to be clearly identified when it appears in the list of references. At some point in time, IPCC officials decided this was a reasonable thing to do. If one must resort to citing non-peer-reviewed material, surely it’s important to be upfront about this.

But because there are no traffic cops, the IPCC has never actually followed that rule. Our citizen audit found 5,587 non-peer-reviewed references in the 2007 climate bible. A year ago, Hilary reported that only six of them – a grand total of 0.1 .001 percent – were clearly identified as such.

Four months later, an InterAcademy Council committee (charged with investigating IPCC procedures) reached a similar conclusion:

…a search through the Working Group reports of the fourth assessment found few instances of information flagged as unpublished or non-peer-reviewed. Clearer guidelines and stronger mechanisms for enforcing them are needed. [bold added, see page 5 of this 14-page PDF]

Just below these remarks, the committee made a specific recommendation. It said:

The IPCC should strengthen and enforce its procedure for the use of unpublished and nonpeer-reviewed literature, including providing more specific guidance on how to evaluate such information, adding guidelines on what types of literature are unacceptable, and ensuring that unpublished and non-peer-reviewed literature is appropriately flagged in the report. [bold added]

Since then, the IPCC has assembled a group of people whose job was apparently to find ways to implement the committee’s recommendations. Instead, as Hilary reports, this group seems to think it’s entitled to pick and choose which rules should be adhered to.

Rather than strengthening and enforcing the flagging guideline, the IPCC group is proposing that that rule be abandoned altogether. On page 7 of this 267-page PDF, we read:

The TG, after consulting the WG /TFI TSUs, found that the implementation of this IAC recommendation regarding the appropriate flagging of unpublished and non-peer reviewed literature would not be practical. [bold added]

In plain English this says that the group (the task group or TG) consulted with paid employees of the IPCC who perform clerical and administrative tasks (the working group and emissions inventory technical support units). We aren’t told why, precisely, but these clerical employees apparently feel it would be too much of a bother to follow this rule. Therefore, the task group is recommending that the rule be struck from the books.

I think this says something profound about the culture of the IPCC. These people are seriously suggesting that a mechanism intended to ensure transparency and public accountability be jettisoned this casually.

So let us return to my opening metaphor. Speed limit signs are posted on major streets. But since no traffic cops have ever been hired everyone drives much faster. An external official visits, examines the situation, and concludes that speed limits really do need to be enforced. After all, old folks and children risk being struck.

The official departs and, in response, city bureaucrats choose to take down the speed limit signs and to pretend the entire matter is a non-issue.

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This entry was posted on April 19, 2011 by in climate bible, IPCC, peer-review and tagged , , , .
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