This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday, Wednesday & Friday.
I’ve been taking a close look at the Chris Landsea controversy. A Florida-based hurricane expert, Landsea served as a contributing author and expert reviewer on both the 1995 and 2001 editions of the climate bible.
In late 2004 he was once again invited to contribute a brief section on hurricanes for what would eventually become the 2007 edition. The person then in charge of the relevant Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) chapter was Kevin Trenberth – who is described in a recent interview as a “climate modeler and IPCC insider.”
Both Landsea and Trenberth are meteorologists. But Landsea’s entire career has focused on hurricanes. Trenberth’s has not.
A few weeks after Landsea received his third IPCC invitation he was surprised to hear that Trenberth intended to participate in a press conference that would claim that experts believe global warming will continue to spur “more outbreaks of intense hurricane activity.”
Landsea sent an e-mail addressed jointly to Trenberth and a second colleague, Linda Mearns (who chose not to participate in the subsequent press conference, perhaps due to Landsea’s concerns). Pointedly, Landsea observed that neither they – nor the three other people scheduled to participate in the press conference – had ever published a research paper on the relationship between hurricanes and climate change. The implication was clear: how could these people claim expertise in that field?
Speaking as the bona fide expert, Landsea’s e-mail provided a brief overview of the topic. It began with this declaration:
There are no known scientific studies that show a conclusive physical link between global warming and hurricane frequency and intensity.
Despite Landsea’s efforts to discourage him, Trenberth went ahead with the press conference. 2004 had been a busy hurricane season in the US and the media was happy to report that people claiming to be experts saw a global warming connection.
A Reuters news story, for example, declared that the “four hurricanes that bashed Florida and the Caribbean within a five-week period over the summer…are only the beginning.” The journalist seemed not to notice that the first person quoted in her story – Paul Epstein – is, in fact, a medical doctor – not someone whose professional life has been devoted to the study of hurricanes.
(As for the suggestion that 2004 was only the beginning, after hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, the number of strong hurricanes making landfall in the US promptly plunged. Since then people have begun talking about the unusual “hurricane drought.”)
Following the press conference, Landsea protested Trenberth’s actions in an e-mail addressed to 15 senior colleagues and IPCC personnel. Among them was IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri. Landsea provided a hyperlink to an online recording of the entire press conference. In his view, the media hadn’t exaggerated. Rather, the news stories were consistent with what Trenberth had actually said.
So where, asked Landsea, are the peer-reviewed publications
that substantiate these pronouncements? What studies are being alluded to that have shown a connection between observed warming trends on the earth and long-term trends in tropical cyclone activity? As far as I know there are none.
Landsea said he was gravely concerned that since Trenberth had already “come to the conclusion that global warming has altered hurricane activity,” and since Trenberth would be overseeing the hurricane section in the Climate Bible, “it may not be possible for the IPCC process to proceed objectively.”
Landsea then made a perfectly reasonable request:
I would like assurance that what will be included in the IPCC report will reflect the best available information and the consensus within the scientific community most expert on the specific topic. [italics added]
Landsea’s e-mail was dated November 5th, 2004. It would be a full two weeks before he received a reply from Pachauri, who explained that travel to Korea and Australia had prevented him from responding sooner.
Rather than acknowledging that Trenberth’s behavior had placed the IPCC in an awkward position, Pachauri was dismissive:
I need hardly mention that the IPCC cannot possibly take a position on this, because individual scientists can do what they wish in their own rights, as long as they are not saying anything on behalf of the IPCC. I may also mention that often the media does exaggerate what scientists may put forward on a balanced and objective basis.
Pachauri – whose first priority should surely be the safeguarding of the IPCC’s reputation – had clearly not bothered to listen to the recording of the press conference. Had he done so he would have discovered that Trenberth was introduced as a senior author of the IPCC’s upcoming report. He would have heard Trenberth himself say:
I was a lead author on the 2001 IPCC report…and in fact I was involved in developing some of the information that is in that report dealing with hurricanes.
What Pachauri would not have heard was a disclaimer making it clear that Trenberth and his colleagues were speaking as private individuals – and that their opinions should in no way be confused with those of the IPCC. It would have taken only 10 seconds to utter such a disclaimer, but that didn’t happen.
As the press release issued at the time makes clear, both Trenberth and another speaker were deliberately identified by their IPCC roles. They weren’t just anyone making claims about hurricanes and global warming – they were UN-recognized experts.
Most of the above is common knowledge. I’ve read several accounts of Landsea’s eventual resignation from the IPCC and was therefore aware of the broad brushstrokes of these events. What I’d not heard before is that the other speaker overtly linked to the IPCC in that press release was James J. McCarthy.
He was described in the release as “a biological oceanographer at Harvard University and lead author of the climate change impacts portion” of the IPCC’s 2001 report. What that description glosses over is that this marine biologist was actually a senior IPCC official between 1997 and 2001. Indeed, he served as co-chair of the IPCC’s Working Group 2 for the 2001 Climate Bible.
So it wasn’t just Trenberth who was blurring the lines between personal opinions and official IPCC views on that occasion. McCarthy was, in fact, the much bigger IPCC fish.
What else have I discovered about McCarthy? During 2009 he was the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This is impressive, to be sure. But since that title changes hands every year, there are now rather a lot of people who can lay claim to this honour.
What I find particularly interesting is that while serving as AAAS president McCarthy simultaneously donned another mantle of responsibility. In May of 2009 he became chairman of the board of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
Politically, I’m an independent. I’ve never belonged to any political party and have, over the years, voted across the spectrum. So I’m not grinding any axe when I point out the obvious: the UCS is an unabashedly left-wing organization. Notice the word union in its name. Notice the word concerned – which smarmily suggests that non-members are callous and uncaring.
The UCS opposes the scientific consensus that genetically modified foods are safe – not on scientific grounds, but on philosophical ones. It shouts about political interference with science when its own pet causes are affected, but remains blind, deaf, and dumb when the pendulum swings in the other direction.
But let us return to McCarthy and his career.
Let me just repeat those two last points: At the same time that he was leading the American Association for the Advancement of Science, McCarthy became the head of a notoriously activist body.
Wow. When I began researching the global warming debate two years ago I had no idea how far my opinion of scientists was going to plummet.