This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.
The scientists who write IPCC reports have so little authority that changing the word “systems” to “ecosystems” involves multiple layers of bureaucracy.
In addition to celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release the first installment of its latest report. Known as the climate bible, that report will be cited by governments around the world.
According to media accounts, the IPCC is a scientific marvel. Here’s how it has been described by the UK’s Guardian newspaper:
But the Secret Santa leak of three IPCC data sticks sheds a different light on this organization. It reveals that the individuals who help write its reports don’t, in fact, evaluate the scientific literature and then record their conclusions in a straightforward manner.
Rather, they’re part of a bureaucracy – one that spends a lot of time worrying about matters that have nothing to do with science.
Some of the internal documents on these data sticks were never intended to be seen by the public. Among them is a collection of interim reports, written by Review Editors.
Each of the 30 chapters in the section of the IPCC report under discussion has two or three Review Editors. These people were expected to file interim reports last September that highlighted themes and concerns raised by external reviewers who’d seen a draft.
Elsewhere I’ve observed that one-third of the Review Editors apparently failed to file their report. But 37 of these documents can be found on the green data stick. I’ve consolidated them into a single, 102-page PDF that may be downloaded here or here. The page numbers cited below refer to that consolidation.
These reports are the most interesting reading I’ve encountered so far on the Secret Santa sticks. Among other things, they make it clear that the scientists involved with the IPCC aren’t at liberty to write their own chapter as they see fit.
For example, expert reviewers who read the draft version of Chapter 4, titled Terrestrial and Inland Water Systems, said its title is confusing. In their opinion, the word “systems” should be replaced by the word “ecosystems” (comments 4, 10, 14, and 53).
But the scientists responsible for that chapter can’t make this simple change. As the Review Editors point out in their joint report:
The comments appear to be quite valid, but if followed through would require the thorny path of changing a plenary approved formulation…the authors need to reflect and make a proposal that will allow the needed steps by all IPCC actors and bodies, up to the plenary if necessary, to become involved to resolve this issue… [p. 8 of this 102-page PDF]
In plain English this means that the titles of each chapter (as well as chapter sub-sections) were decided long ago. They were determined by an IPCC meeting attended by senior officials representing different countries.
A change as minor as this one – involving only three letters – cannot be made without petitioning multiple layers of the IPCC’s bureaucracy.
Similarly, Opha Pauline Dube, a Review Editor for Chapter 22, advises her authors that they will need to “re-visit sub-sections that are required under the broad chapter headings approved by the IPCC plenary” (p. 75). Ana Rosa Moreno likewise urges her Chapter 26 authors to “ensure that all topics on the plenary approved outline are addressed…” (p. 87).
Translation: it doesn’t matter if no useful scientific information exists on these topics. A meeting of IPCC officials made these topics mandatory.
As naive members of the public, we imagine that “the world’s top climate scientists” would be held in such high esteem at the IPCC that they’d be the ones determining what is important and where emphasis should be placed.
But these scientists are actually told what to write about. They’re told how many pages they must say it in. And they’re urged again and again to ensure that their chapter doesn’t diverge from what earlier IPCC reports have already declared – or what other chapters will say.
For example, Chapter 4 Review Editors tell their authors that “particular attention” needs to be paid to the IPCC’s last major report, published in 2007, “to ensure seamless continuation of previous IPCC efforts” (p. 10).
Review Editor Dube urges her authors to choose case studies that contribute to the “overall theme” of the current report (p. 77).
John Balbus, a Review Editor for Chapter 8, identifies some reviewer comments as “showstoppers.” In his words, this is “because they point to potential internal conflicts with other IPCC chapters or documents…” (p. 22).
SCIENCE IS A RIVER
The fact that IPCC expert reviewers frequently observe that the authors of one chapter are saying something rather different from the authors in a second chapter is important. It indicates that many of these matters are far from settled.
Research papers often reach contradictory conclusions. Different people looking at the same data interpret it in different ways. Fundamentally, science is fluid. Like a river, it meanders – sometimes turning back on itself, sometimes branching off in unexpected directions.
But the IPCC is in the business of producing the straight, narrow, and official climate change line. Those at the top of the IPCC hierarchy expect the upcoming report to extend seamlessly from the foundation laid down by four previous climate assessments plus numerous shorter documents.
Big picture, there will be no surprises. The direction in which this report is headed was determined decades ago. Rather than being authentic scientific documents, therefore, IPCC reports are merely Lego blocks.
PAINFULLY POLITICALLY CORRECT
The IPCC is the kind of environment in which Etienne Piguet, a Review Editor for Chapter 13, observes that:
the gender balance and (to a lesser extent) the geographic origin balance among reviewers is satisfactory. [italics in the original; p. 36]
Similarly, one of the 963 comments made about Chapter 18 amounts to a complaint about the mix of authors who wrote the chapter – a concern that Review Editor Bernard Seguin considered important enough to mention.
The full text of this “scientific expert review” comment is worth reproducing because it documents the entirely-unrelated-to-scientific-excellence expectations some people have of the IPCC:
I’m just wondering about the geographical balance of authors. Both [chapter leaders] are from Northern Hemisphere, developed world. Most of the [lead authors] are from “Western” nation. All of the Contributing authors are from Northern Hemisphere, developed nations. All the review editors are from developed countries. I thought there was an implicit (if not explicit) understanding that the IPCC was supposed to bring together Scientists from the developing and developed world – but perhaps that mission was dropped in this Assessment? (Neofotis, Peter, City University of New York & Climate Impacts Group, Columbia Univ ) [bold added]
On the one hand, the Guardian tells us that the IPCC exemplifies “gold-standard scientific reporting.” On the other, expert reviewer Peter Neofotis is under the impression that the IPCC’s “mission” is to care deeply about where the people who write its reports were born.
Elsewhere, indigenous people and their “traditional knowledge” are discussed by Review Editors (pp. 18, 20, 46, 90, 91, 97, 99), one Review Editor raises the issue of “access of the poor to the law” (p. 36), and a third declares: “It will be useful to involve a gender expert as a contributing author” (p. 18).
In sum, IPCC reports are highly bureaucratic creations, shaped by concerns that few of us would consider scientific. Neither their chapter titles, subject headings, or overall direction is determined by the scientists whose names later appear on these documents.
When all is said and done, those scientists are little more than cogs in the climate machine.