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Fixing the Global Warming Establishment with New Lipstick

A review of the IPCC process is a huge missed opportunity

Shikha Dalmia
September 17, 2010

When a woman consistently messes up her relationships, her therapist doesn’t just tell her to wear a new dress and change her lipstick before her next date; s/he asks her to do some real soul searching. But a new dress-and-lipstick combo is pretty much what an agency charged with reviewing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control’s (IPCC) procedures in the wake of the GlacierGate mess recently recommended.

Both the detractors and supporters of the IPCC—the U.N. body that serves as the Vatican of climate change—are billing the Inter Academy Council’s recommendations as “fundamental” change. And some of its recommendations might indeed make a difference if the IPCC ever implements them—a big “if.” But fundamental change would require creating incentives for the IPCC to question its own conclusions—do constant soul searching, as it were—something that other scientific disciplines do as a matter of course. Nothing in the review’s recommendations does that.

The global warming establishment found itself in hot water last year when leaked e-mails suggested that leading climatologists had massaged data, interfered with the peer review process and engaged in other shenanigans to exaggerate the observed warming. A subsequent whitewash exonerated the scientists involved but further scrutiny debunked other alarmist claims in the IPCC’s last assessment report. For example, the IPCC had predicted that the entire 500,000 square km Himalayan glacier range would disappear by 2035. Multiple analyses, including one by the Yale Climate Media Forum—no denialist outfit—found the claim to be perfectly accurate except for two problems. One, the approximate area covered by the glaciers is just 33,000—not 500,000—square km as the IPCC stated. And two, the paper from which the IPCC lifted this claim had predicted the shrinkage would occur by 2350, not 2035! (The Yale analysis is well worth a full read.)

The IPCC withdrew this claim—dismissing it as one mistake in a voluminous report that didn’t affect its overall conclusions. But the bigger problem is not with what the IPCC says but what it doesn’t. Even before GlacierGate, many external reviewers had bitterly complained that lead authors of the report’s various chapters solicit their opinion only to ignore it in the final summary if it contradicts their conclusions—creating an impression of a faux scientific consensus. Ross McKitrick, the University of Guelph-Ontario economist who debunked Penn State climatologist Michael Mann’s infamous “hockey stick” graph, has copiously documented this behavior. Take tree ring-based climate reconstructions in the third IPCC report. McKitrick notes that Mann, a lead author, had available to him two studies besides his own presenting hemispheric temperature histories dating back to the Medieval Era. One of them did not support his claim that the 1990s were the hottest decade in the millennium. So what did Mann do? Simply delete all mention of it. The same trick was pulled in the latest report, McKitrick says. Indur Goklany, a policy analyst in the Department of Interior, has documented similar sleights of hand when it comes to predictions of food and water shortages due to global warming.

To its credit, the IAC review, headed by former Princeton University president Harold Shapiro, takes a serious stab at addressing these problems. It acknowledges that giving lead authors the final say in accepting critiques of their work is like having Enron certify its own books. (O.K. It didn’t quite put it that way, but the point is that there is a fundamental conflict of interest here). It recommended letting editors—not authors—be the final arbiters of which comments to keep or throw out as academic journals do. And when substantial disagreement persists between reviewers and authors, it should be documented in an appendix, the academy emphasized. This is something that is already required by the current IPCC rules but roundly ignored. Even more commendably, the IAC recognized the incestuous group-think involved in producing the IPCC reports and recommended that more scientists from outside the climate change establishment be inducted in various stages of the report-writing process.

But then the academy’s review takes a leap into Banal Land. It recommends that IPCC chairs serve no more than one six-year term, a thinly veiled dig at the current chair, Rajendra Pachauri, now on his second term. Pachauri is a pompous, arrogant man (with an awful haircut) who brooks no disagreement with the global warming orthodoxy and deserves to go. He dismissed concerns that the IPCC’s Himalayan glacier claim might be in error as “school boy science.” However, there is no reason why a one-term chair would inherently be any better than a multiple-term chair.

Even more ridiculously, the academy concluded that IPCC’s sloppiness could be better handled if it had a permanent executive committee, something it currently lacks, a suggestion that Pachauri—surprise, surprise!—whole-heartedly embraced. But the idea that another layer of bureaucracy will solve the panel’s problems is absurd. Equally absurd is the academy’s suggestion that the IPCC enhance its “media-relations capacity” in order to communicate better with “audiences beyond scientists and governments”—as if its real problem is getting its message out given the legions of compliant journalists who happily regurgitate its line for free.

But none of the academy’s suggestions—good or bad—address the IPCC’s fundamental problem: It has every incentive—financial and otherwise—to buttress the global warming orthodoxy and none to challenge it. In every other discipline, scientists earn fame and fortune if they successfully debunk its reigning theories. They are feted at conferences, cited more often, offered more jobs. In climate science, by contrast, debunkers invite an onslaught by the entire global warming juggernaut that can leave their academic reputation in ruins. Debunkers get branded as deniers. And as this Australian blogger points out, they get investigated by Desmog, Exxon Secrets, or Sourcewatch, websites dedicated to exposing any connection the researcher might have with the fossil fuel industry—no matter how old or tenuous.

So how could the problem be fixed? First and foremost, IPCC’s Working Groups 2 and 3, neither one of which has the slightest thing to do with science, ought to be disbanded. Group 2 speculates about the larger impact of global warming and Group 3 offers mitigation options to policy makers, all of which inevitably pushes the panel toward advocacy, something the IAC said it shouldn’t do. In their stead, Working Group 1 that deals with the scientific issues ought to be expanded to include departments dedicated to exploring the full range of possible explanations for the observed warming beyond human emissions such as natural variability or sun spot activity—all of which have become anathema to the global warming establishment.

The case for anthropogenic warming might indeed become airtight one day. But in order to get there, it has to withstand constant attempts at falsification.  That’s what fundamental change would require. Anything less is purely cosmetic.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation and a columnist at Forbes. This column originally appeared at Forbes. This column previously appeared at Reason.com.


Shikha Dalmia is Senior Analyst


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