Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

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

Chris Landsea and the Moral Midgets

There are moments in our lives when our decisions really, truly matter – when, by our actions, we demonstrate the quality of our character. If we believe in impartiality, we must speak up. If we believe in scientific integrity, we must defend it.

When he resigned from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), hurricane expert Chris Landsea did exactly this. That he was surrounded by people incapable of recognizing the wider implications of the situation he’d brought to their attention should give us all pause.

The moral failure was profound – and it didn’t end with the small group of scientists who were privy to the exchange of e-mails Landsea had had with the IPCC in November and December 2004. The following January Landsea went public in the form of an “open letter to the communitysent to 45 colleagues – one of whom then posted it on the Internet.

Landsea said his decision to leave the IPCC was spurred by the realization that the hurricane section of its upcoming report had “become politicized.” Via his open letter, he said, he wished to raise awareness about “what I view as a problem in the IPCC process.”

Kevin Trenberth, who is not a hurricane expert, had participated in a press conference in which the media and the public were led to believe that a link exists between global warming and more intense hurricanes. When Landsea protested to the IPCC that this was improper, especially given the fact that Trenberth was in charge of the hurricane section of the climate bible then being prepared, he was blown off. In his words:

It is beyond me why my colleagues would utilize the media to push an unsupported agenda that recent hurricane activity has been due to global warming. Given Dr. Trenberth’s role as the IPCC’s [coordinating] Lead Author responsible for preparing the text on hurricanes, his public statements so far outside of current scientific understanding led me to concern that it would be very difficult for the IPCC process to proceed objectively with regards to the assessment on hurricane activity.

…I was disappointed when the IPCC leadership dismissed my concerns when I brought up the misrepresentation of climate science while invoking the authority of the IPCC. Specifically, the IPCC leadership said that Dr. Trenberth was speaking as an individual even though he was introduced in the press conference as an IPCC lead author; I was told that that the media was exaggerating or misrepresenting his words, even though the audio from the press conference and interview tells a different story…and that Dr. Trenberth was accurately reflecting conclusions from the [2001 Climate Bible], even though it is quite clear that [it] stated that there was no connection between global warming and hurricane activity. The IPCC leadership saw nothing to be concerned with in Dr. Trenberth’s unfounded pronouncements to the media…

Along with his open letter, Landsea attached the e-mails he’d sent on this matter – and the ones he’d received in response from IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri and Working Group 1 co-chair Susan Solomon. There was no need to take his word for it, a clear record of what had transpired was available.

News outlets should have run with this story. It should have become a full-fledged scandal. If an organization that everyone thinks is producing authoritative scientific reports has been compromised by those advancing a political agenda surely this is an important development. If the leadership of the IPCC is exhibiting a bunker mentality by refusing to even acknowledge there’s a problem, surely the public deserves to know.

The Washington Post story provided the basic details and even quoted Landsea at some length. But the journalist then trivialized the matter by characterizing it as a “spat between Landsea and Trenberth.”

For its part Science magazine (which is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science), devoted one-third of a single page in its 3-page News of the Week section to the matter (see pp.19-21 of this 115-page PDF).

In the judgment of the magazine’s staff, this story deserved to appear last – after articles that discussed the merger of two agricultural research bodies in the developing world, NASA budget cuts, funding for science education in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the announcement of an annual $1 million donation to the Arab Science and Technology Foundation.

On the page in which the story finally appeared, a controversy involving a biology lab at Boston University received top billing and twice as much space.

Science‘s account of the Landsea affair began with this line: “An ugly spat has broken out among contributors to the world’s leading scientific report on climate change.” The next paragraph characterized the matter as a tussle. That story included a new quote from Pachauri, reiterating that IPCC authors are “free to express their views on any subject.”

What’s astonishing is that no one – not the three journalists involved, nor anyone else at Science, connected the dots despite the damning nature of the remarks that appeared at the end of the story. We’re told that Trenberth

…defended his view that changing sea conditions could be contributing to greater hurricane intensity.

That position is “plausible,” says hurricane expert Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But hurricane activity varies so much from decade to decade that “not a single person in my field thinks you can see the signal.” [bold added]

If not a single hurricane expert thinks there’s a link between hurricanes and global warming, how can it possibly be OK for an IPCC senior author who is not a hurricane expert to make statements to the contrary at a press conference? This is not a question of two competing schools of thought amongst people with roughly equal credentials. This is a case in which someone with no expertise was promulgating his personal opinion directly to the media and enhancing that opinion by pointing to his IPCC affiliation.

How could the IPCC permit that person to remain in charge of the hurricane section in the gold standard Climate Bible? Did these people not understand that this made them appear blinkered and unprofessional? Did their mothers never tell them that respect must be earned?

The media coverage of the Landsea affair was entirely inadequate, but this story did get reported. Large numbers of people connected to the IPCC became aware of these events. Yet no open letters, signed by concerned scientists, protested Trenberth’s behavior – or Pachauri’s pathetic response. Nor were there any mass resignations from the IPCC. To my knowledge there were no other resignations, period.

This tells us something important about the judgment of the scientific community that expects us to trust that exact same judgment on the question of whether global warming is the fault of human beings.

And it says something about the decision, two years later, to award the IPCC a Nobel Peace Prize. Apparently, that prize is now given to moral midgets.

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