This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday, Wednesday & Friday.
On the basis of a politically-massaged summary and a stack of press advisories, the media has blasted IPCC talking points around the world.
Last Friday the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a 36-page document. Called the Summary for Policymakers, it claimed to summarize 14 chapters of new, not-yet-released material.
Those 14 chapters weren’t boiled down to 36 pages by an aloof, rigidly logical mechanical device. Instead, human beings were involved. Sixty-five IPCC personnel, out of hundreds, were chosen to perform this task. Favouritism, bias, conflict-of-interest, and political calculation could all have played a role in their selection.
Since each of these 65 people relied on old-fashioned human judgment when deciding which information deserved to be included in the Summary, there’s a good chance that another level of bias – conscious or unconscious – was involved.
But the Summary was merely drafted by these 65 people. When they finished their task back in June, their document was 31 pages long and contained 15,589 words. At the press conference on Friday, the IPCC presented to the world a new, improved version of the summary. It is five pages longer, but contains 700 fewer words.
The specific changes are a topic for another time. What’s important here is that these changes were made during four days of behind-closed-doors diplomatic negotiations involving politicians and bureaucrats from more than 100 countries.
Unless we’re prepared to believe that every last negotiator at that UN meeting was concerned only about scientific truth, the production of this summary involved obvious, multiple competing agendas. At three separate points in the process, therefore, this document was vulnerable to political manipulation.
Yet journalists around the world have told us that this summary is science. Last Friday, one seasoned reporter employed by a major newspaper called the summary “the most important analysis yet” of climate change. Writing in the UK Telegraph, Geoffrey Lean told us the summary is the result of “a mind-bogglingly thorough process.” (His piece was reprinted by the Irish Independent on Sunday and by the Australian Age yesterday.)
Did he mention that this process is unusual in the extreme? Did he point to any other context in which it would be proper – or wise – for political operatives to spend four days rewriting a scientific document?
Did he call the public’s attention to the three steps in that “mind-boggling thorough” process in which non-scientific considerations may have prevailed?
I’m afraid not. At the time, Lean had no way of verifying whether the Summary is a sensible and rational representation of the contents of those 14 chapters – he simply took the IPCC’s word for it.
But that’s not all. How did he verify that the IPCC report was “written by 259 top scientists”? The IPCC is in possession of the CVs of its personnel, but it chooses not to make them public. Nor is there any master list a person can consult in order to determine whether someone is, actually, one of the world’s finest scientific minds.
Among the 65 people who helped draft the Summary we find Maisa Rojas. She earned a PhD in atmospheric physics from Oxford back in 2000. That’s certainly impressive, and I’m sure she’s a lovely and intelligent human being. But Rojas is currently employed as an assistant professor at the University of Chile. How does Lean know she’s one of the world’s top scientists?
Another case in point is Lisa Alexander. I’ve written about her before. She only earned her PhD in 2009 – four years ago. By then, she’d already contributed to the IPCC’s 2001 and 2007 reports. In other words, the IPCC considered Alexander a “top scientist” years before she’d completed her doctorate.
A third person among the 65 authors of the draft Summary is Krishna Kumar Kanikicharla. During 2011-2012 (at the same time that he was assisting the IPCC), this gentleman was a post-doctoral visiting fellow at the University of Colorado.
Is he really one the world’s top scientists? I have no idea. And I’d be willing to bet $50 that Lean doesn’t know, either.
On it goes. How did Lean verify that the as-yet-unreleased IPCC report relied on “9,200 mostly recent scientific publications”? It seems obvious that he, himself, couldn’t possibly have verified that claim.
In other words, armed with nothing more than a politically-massaged summary and a stack of IPCC media advisories, Lean was prepared to meekly repeat IPCC talking points.
He was prepared to behave as though nothing the IPCC says could be anything other than the gospel truth.
Yesterday, the IPCC made draft versions of all 14 chapters of its Working Group 1 report public. To give credit where it’s due, this occurred far more quickly than in the past.