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A damning official report on the IPCC

Update: Links added to sources

From today’s Times, my op-ed piece.

This month, after a three-year investigation, Harvard University
suspended a prominent professor of psychology for scandalously
overinterpreting videos of monkey behaviour. The incident has sent
shock waves through science because it suggests that a body of data
is unreliable. The professor, Marc Hauser, is now a pariah in his
own field and his papers have been withdrawn. But the implications
for society are not great – no policy had been based on his

Yesterday, after a four-month review, a committee of scientists concluded that the
Nobel prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC) has “assigned high confidence to statements for which there
is very little evidence”, has failed to enforce its own guidelines,
has been guilty of too little transparency, has ignored critical
review comments and has had no policies on conflict of

Enormous and expensive policy changes have been based on the
flawed work of these scientists. Yet there is apparently to be no
investigation, blame, suspension or withdrawal of papers, just a
gentle bureaucratic fattening of the organisation with new
full-time posts.

IPCC reports are supposed to be the gold standard account of
what is – and is not – known about global warming. The panel boasts
that it uses only peer-reviewed scientific literature. But its
claims about mountain ice turned out to be anecdotes from a
climbing magazine, its claims on the Amazon’s vulnerability to
drought from a Brazilian pressure group’s website and 42 per cent of the references in one chapter
proved to be to reports by Greenpeace, WWF and other “grey”
literature. Yesterday’s review finds that guidelines on the use of
this grey literature “are vague and have not always been

For instance, the notorious claim that glaciers in the Himalayas
would disappear by 2035 seems to have been based on a misprint (for
2350) in a document issued by a pressure group. When several
reviewers challenged the assertion in draft, they were ignored.
When Indian scientists challenged it after publication, they were
not just dismissed but vilified and accused of “voodoo science” by the IPCC
chairman, Rajendra Pachauri.

By contrast, when two academics, Ross McKitrick and Pat
Michaels, found a strong link between temperature rise and local
economic development – implying that recent warming is partly down
to local, not global factors – their paper was ignored for two
drafts, despite many review comments drawing attention to the
omission. It was finally given a grudging reference, with a
false assertion that the data were rebutted by other data that
turned out to be non-existent.

We now know the back story of this episode: the e-mails leaked
from the University of East Anglia include this from Professor Phil
Jones, referring to exactly this paper: “I can’t see either of
these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep
them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-review
literature is!”

(Note that the IPCC had appointed Professor Jones as
co-ordinating lead author to pass judgment on his own papers, as
well as those of his critics. Learning nothing, it has appointed
one of Professor Jones’s closest colleagues for the next report.
This is asking not to be taken seriously.)

These are not merely procedural issues. They have real
consequences for science and society. All the errors and biases
that have come to light in recent months swerve in the direction of
exaggerating the likely impact of climate change. According to the
economist Richard Tol, one part of the 2007 report
(produced by Working Group 2) systematically overstated the
negative impacts of climate change, while another section (written
by Working Group 3) systematically understated the costs of
emissions reduction.

Indur Goklany, an independent science scholar, likewise noticed
that the report had quoted a study that estimated the number of
people at increased risk of reduced water shortage in the future as
a result of climate change, but omitted to mention the same source’s estimate
of the number of people at decreased risk. The latter number was
larger in all cases, so that “by the 2080s the net global
population at risk declines by up to 2.1 billion people”.

This is not a new problem. The unilateral redrafting of IPCC
reports by “lead authors” after reviewers had agreed them, and the
writing of a sexed-up “summary for policy makers” before the report
was complete, have discomfited many scientists since the first
report. It is no great surprise that the “experts” who compiled one
part of the 2007 report included three from Greenpeace, two Friends of
the Earth representatives, two Climate Action Network
representatives, and a person each from the activist organisations
WWF, Environmental Defense Fund, and the David Suzuki

Frankly, the whole process, not just the discredited Dr Pachauri
(in shut-eyed denial at a press conference yesterday), needs
purging or it will drag down the reputation of science with it. One
of the most shocking things for those who champion science, as I
do, has been the sight of the science Establishment reacting to
each scandal in climate science with indifference or contempt. The
contrast with the thorough investigation of the Hauser affair is

Three years ago, not having paid much attention, I thought that
IPCC reports were reliable, fair and transparent. No longer.
Despite coming from a long line of coal-mining entrepreneurs, I’m
not a “denier”: I think carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. I’m not
even a sceptic (yet): I think the climate has warmed and will warm
further. But I am now a “lukewarmer” who has yet to see any
evidence saying that the current warming is, or is likely to be,
unprecedented, fast or tending to accelerate.

So I have concluded that global warming will most probably be a
fairly minor problem – at least compared with others such as
poverty and habitat loss – for nature as well as people. After
watching the ecologically and economically destructive policies
enacted in its name (biofuels, wind power), I think we run the risk
of putting a tourniquet round our collective necks to stop a


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist