Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

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

3 Things Scientists Need to Know About the IPCC

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of addressing a meeting of the World Federation of Scientists in Erice, Italy. I’m hoping to record a video of this talk, but in the interim here’s a transcript of what I said. All slides can be enlarged with a click.

A PDF of slides with notes is here. Slides-only PDF here.

Slide1Good evening. My name is Donna Laframboise. Unlike most of the speakers at this remarkable event, I am not a scientist. I’m an investigative journalist who has spent the past 6 years examining the climate debate.

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Slide2When I began my research, reading books and articles, and watching news programs and documentary films, I heard a great deal about an organization called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the IPCC.

It’s typically described as a paragon of scientific virtue, a model of transparency. We’re told it is staffed by the world’s top scientists and best experts, and that it has been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. The IPCC, we are advised, is an organization whose conclusions can – and should – be trusted.

At the beginning, I believed all of that. I had no reason not to. But then I started to notice that many of the things I’d heard about the IPCC are not, in fact, true. The title of my talk here today is Three Things Scientists Need to Know About the IPCC.

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1. This is a political entity.
2. Scientists are not in charge.
3. The IPCC is a template that gets duplicated elsewhere. So even if your scientific specialty has nothing to do with climate you may, at some point, be invited to participate in an organization of this kind.

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Slide4So let’s start with the first point: Is the IPCC about science or about politics?

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Slide5If you go to its website, you’ll find the highly misleading claim that the IPCC is “a scientific body.” But let’s take another look at its name.

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Slide6It’s called the Intergovernmental Panel. The definition of “intergovernmental” is: “between two or more governments.” There’s only one way to become a member of the IPCC and that is to be a UN-recognized government. Taiwan, with its 23 million people – four times the population of Norway – isn’t recognized by the UN, and therefore cannot participate in the IPCC.

Now when governments work together they are not doing science – they’re doing politics. There’s nothing wrong with politics, but if a political body is trying to convince us that it’s a scientific body, we should be wondering why.

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Slide7Back at the IPCC website, you’ll notice the logos of two UN bodies in the top right corner – the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme. Those two UN logos appear on every IPCC report, press release, and official speech. This is an organization consisting of governments – an organization embedded in the UN structure.

What happens is that governments – not science academies – nominate individual scientists to help write IPCC reports. Thousands of individuals are nominated, hundreds are chosen to be lead authors, and the public is then told…

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Slide8…that these are the world’s finest scientific minds and that we should therefore trust these people’s findings. Here’s a news clipping from 1995. For 20 years, we’ve been told that the IPCC and the world’s top scientists are one and the same.

But here’s a curious point. The IPCC seems strangely uninterested in the actual credentials of these individuals. We all know that scientific expertise is rather specific. The website of this wonderful centre here in Erice tells us that “there are at least 10 recognized specialties” in subnuclear physics alone. And yet the IPCC never bothers to identify the expertise of its chosen personnel.

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Slide9Here’s a partial list of IPCC authors involved in its last report. We’re informed that those who worked on a chapter about oceans came from Germany, Australia, Japan, Brazil and so forth. Why are we told this? Because the IPCC, being a UN body, cares deeply about geographical representation and geopolitical appearances.

A journalist such as myself has to Google the names of each one of these authors – and there are hundreds of them – in order to find out what it is that these people are experts in. The IPCC has a copy of all of their CVs. But it doesn’t make those CVs public. Instead, it behaves as though the critical piece of information is a scientist’s nationality.

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Slide10Now let’s take a look at point #2: Scientists are not in charge at the IPCC. Its latest report contains 60 chapters and totals more than 7,000 pages. Many good, sincere scientists toiled away on their own small portion of that enormous report. These people no doubt did their best to be honest and accurate.

But here’s the problem: almost no one will ever read that 7,000-page report. Journalists certainly won’t. We don’t have that kind of time. The same is true of politicians – the people who vote on new laws and determine how trillions of euros will get spent. The few occasions in which I’ve spoken to a politician about my book-length exposé of the IPCC, it has become clear their lives are way too busy. They don’t have time to read 200 pages, never mind 7,000.

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Slide11Everyone knows this. Which is why the IPCC also produces documents in the 20 to 30-page range bearing the title: Summary for Policymakers. There’s a Working Group 1 Summary for Policymakers, a Working Group 2 summary, and a Working Group 3 summary – for different sections of that 7,000-page report. These are the documents that matter – the ones that actually get read. These are the documents that influence media coverage and shape new legislation.

Now if scientists were in charge at the IPCC, at the end of the process these summaries would be written up by a small group, released into the world, and we’d all read these scientists’ unadorned words. But that’s not what happens.

In fact, IPCC authors only draft these summaries. And then something incredible transpires.

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Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ipccphoto/14108452703/ Image used here in a fair use context.

A big IPCC meeting takes place. Attended by governments. Although some people in the room are scientists, the vast majority are diplomats, politicians, foreign affairs specialists, bureaucrats, and assorted other officials. These people then spend the next week re-writing the summary authored by scientists.

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Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ipccphoto/14108451053/ Image used here in a fair use context.

Every single paragraph in that draft gets projected onto large screens and discussed. The delegation from country X wants two sentences removed. The delegation from country Y insists that a new phrase be inserted. Graphs get added; tables get subtracted. And they keep talking about that one paragraph until all of the countries present are happy with it. Then it’s taken down and the next paragraph is put up on the screen.

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Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ipccphoto/14088364355/ Image used here in a fair use context.

Even though there’s a hard deadline that this process needs to be finished by, these meetings aren’t always well managed. So toward the end of the week, discussions often take place around the clock – they’re still going on at 11 pm, and at 3 am. People who’ve been through this process say it becomes a bit of an endurance test. Who can stay awake?

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Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ipccphoto/14085239222/ Image used here in a fair use context.

The bottom line is that this is a week of naked political horse trading that goes on behind closed doors. Journalists are not allowed to witness what takes place, which is why we’ve been looking at official IPCC photos here. This is what they permit us to see.

It’s only after the diplomats have haggled over this Summary – paragraph by paragraph – that the final version gets officially released at a press conference.

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Slide16The world is then told that science has spoken. But what’s just happened has nothing to do with science. Scientific truth is not determined in the dead of night by UN-level negotiations. On what planet would such an approach make scientific sense?

But the bad news doesn’t stop there. There’s actually a step in the IPCC process in which the original, lengthy report gets amended so that it conforms to the politically-negotiated Summary. I am not making this up.

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Slide17Here’s a 2007 news clipping in which the IPCC’s chairman explains to a reporter that the reason the Summary has been released before the full report, is because the IPCC needs to ensure that the report is consistent with the Summary. After the political meeting takes place, they go back and change the original report. In 2013, following one of these meetings, 9 out of 14 chapters had to be revisited. In Chapter 11, more than 20 changes needed to be made.

As a journalist, I find this bizarre. If I spend months writing a long, investigative magazine article in which I’ve worked hard to describe matters accurately, there is no way on Earth it would be OK for the sponsors of the process – the magazine’s advertisers – to then sit around and negotiate between themselves what should and should not be included in my magazine article. Absolutely out-of-the-question. But this is normal operating procedure at the IPCC.

So what’s going on here? How do we explain this outlandish, perverse process?

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Slide18Well Rajendra Pachauri, who chaired the IPCC for 13 years, said that its “main customer” was something called the UNFCCC. Jean-Pascal van Ypersele is an IPCC official who’s working very hard to become its new chairman. This is slide #26 from a presentation he gave a few years ago: The IPCC, he says, is “eager to continue serving the UNFCCC process.” What does that mean?

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Slide19The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is an international treaty. If you’re the UN, and you’re trying to persuade nearly 200 different parties to act together, you need to start from somewhere. You need an established body of facts, a master document, a bible that everyone can use as a jumping-off point. IPCC reports, it turns out, serve that purpose.

In other words, the IPCC’s primary function is to enable a political instrument – a treaty between nation states. This is high octane politics.

Now maybe you’re sitting there, thinking to yourself: “What’s the big deal? The IPCC’s connected to a treaty. So what?”

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Slide20Well, why isn’t this fact acknowledged when the IPCC spends five paragraphs telling us about itself on its website? Why is a treaty it exists to promote not even mentioned?

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Slide21Instead we’re told about a scientific view, a scientific body, about thousands of scientists and scientific information. What’s happening here is that science and scientists are being used. As window dressing – to obscure what’s actually going on.

The UN recruits scientists to write a report. The UN then spends days re-writing the summaries – the only documents that really matter. For good measure, it goes back and tampers with the original report, too. And then, abracadabra, the UN points to the report and says: Our treaty needs to be strengthened – Science says so!

This is politics using the good name of science to accomplish its goals. THIS. IS. NOT. HONEST. And it’s my job, as a journalist, to point this out.

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Slide22So now we come to my final point: The 27-year-old IPCC is, in fact, a template. It’s part of a pattern in which the UN, again and again, exploits the good name of science.

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Slide23Between 2003 and 2008, the UN sponsored the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology (IAAST). Described as an “IPCC for agriculture,” this effort was led by Robert Watson – who had just wrapped up five years as IPCC chairman. In that instance, 400 scientists wrote the UN a big report.

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Slide24In 2011, Nature reported that the UN wanted to establish an IPCC-like body on soil degradation. The article was entirely candid about the fact that such a body would assist a treaty known as the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.

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Slide25And then there’s the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – aka the IPBES. In the words of the Guardian newspaper, this is an “IPCC for nature.” Robert Watson is involved here, too. At the moment, he’s a Vice Chair. And, what do you, know? This IPCC clone is linked to yet another UN treaty called the Convention on Biological Diversity.

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Slide26That treaty’s website recently mentioned that its own IPCC isn’t being funded adequately.

Ladies and gentlemen: We live in a world in which people are suspicious of politicians, but still respect scientists. Politicians are therefore eager to borrow the prestige of science, to camouflage their own agenda with a veneer of scientific authority.

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Slide27At some point in your career, the UN may try to use you to further its goals. Be careful out there.

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