More on the IPCC process

A few days ago a journalist from one of the major British newspapers contacted me for my opinion on the IPCC review process, and I thought that i’d post my response here for a bit of clarity:

1.      Do you have concerns about science, data or claims presented in the final draft of the IPCC AR4 report? If so, please detail.

I do not have any major concerns except to point out that the IPCC AR4 is probably a little behind the latest science due to its careful review process and it requires the consensus of the wide array of experts involved.   The other major reason for saying this lies in the fact that the assessment reports of the IPCC are only published every 5 years or so.  The science of climate change is continuously and rapidly changing, hence reports get out of date very quickly.

Perhaps the best example of the fact that the IPCC is conservative in its predictions with the fact that AR4 failed to predict the sudden and precipitous drop of the Arctic summer sea ice.  This was not the fault of the highly qualified scientists involved, but a consequence of the fact that predictions like this are often highly controversial and, despite being true, require greater scientific investigation before all members of the IPCC expert teams involved are willing to sign on to them.  Hence, the IPCC process is an inherently conservative one, which has enormous significance to our understanding of the risk of a rapidly changing climate.

2.      Clearly the recent revelations and apology have dented public confidence in the IPCC’s process, what can the IPCC do to restore confidence in its findings for future reports?

Whereas the recent cherry-picking by a well supported denialist movement may have dented the public’s confidence in the IPCC process, the scientific community still stands behind the IPCC process.   I think that it would be very useful for journalists such as yourself to outline the process of coming to a conclusion on both sides of the debate.  On one side, you have well supported consensus science while on the other, you have non-peer-reviewed conclusions, bias and conjecture. Personally, if the public did actually see this, I don’t think they would be so much confusion.

One of the last points that make in response to your question, is that the IPCC is continuously reviewing the way that it goes about its processes.  This is a good strategy, whether you are making aircraft, manufacturing kitchen equipment or reviewing the latest science from the IPCC.  In the next few months, there are a number of documents that will be released from the IPCC (the result of review committees since AR4) that will recommend improvements to the IPCC process as we move towards AR5.  Clearly an organisation that is serious about quality and excellence undergoes such adaptive self improving reviews and procedures on a regular basis – the result being consistent with the IPCC’s mission statement of transparency, objectivity and honesty in reporting the latest science.

3.      Do you still have confidence in the chair and vice-chairs of the IPCC or should they stand down from their positions? Please also give a short explanation for your answer?

Personally, I have the utmost confidence in Dr Rajendra Pachauri and the IPCC vice chairs.  The sustained attack by the denialist movement have done nothing to demonstrate that Dr. Pachauri or the vice chairs have not fulfilled their IPCC duties to a high level of excellence. Attempts to undermine a couple of statements within the AR4 of the IPCC do not constitute reasons for not taking the other 99.99% of the carefully reviewed and supported science extremely seriously.

Perhaps it is useful to look at the standards on the other side of the ‘debate’.  The recent book by the denialist Ian Plimer from the University of Adelaide (“Heaven and Earth) had so many errors and falsely supported references that one university professor commented that the book would fail outright if it had been submitted as a Ph.D. thesis.

4.       Should the AR4 be reviewed in detail to check for other errors, particularly given that it is a document designed to help governments and officials make policy decisions that can impact both the environment and on people’s lives?

It is important to already realise that the IPCC is already a review document – its role already is to bring together the conclusions of thousands of scientific studies.  It also has a clear and transparent process and a excellent track record of reporting the latest scientific consensus accurately (see above).  This is unparalleled by any other source of information (compare it to the convicted felon and chief scientist Jay Lehr of the Heartland Institute for example).   In my opinion, as someone who knows the IPCC process and its outputs well, I don’t think a detailed review would find more than vanishingly small number of poorly supported or erroneous statements, among thousands of scientific statements that are robustly supported.

However, given the extreme importance of climate change to government decision-making, it would be important in my opinion for any government or decision-making body using the IPCC process to apply due diligence – to explore it and be satisfied with its accuracy, objectivity and thoroughness.

2 thoughts on “More on the IPCC process

  1. “In my opinion, as someone who knows the IPCC process and its outputs well, I don’t think a detailed review would find more than vanishingly small number of poorly supported or erroneous statements, among thousands of scientific statements that are robustly supported.”

    Isn’t that all the more of a reason to review AR4? Let me put it another way — would you rather have a body vetted scientists outing and then explaining errors in AR4, or would you rather have the skeptics do it? The skeptics are riding high right now with just two errors (Amazon and Himalayas); think how bad the situation would be if there were five or six?

  2. Good point, T Greer. The point I have made elsewhere is that the IPCC is undergoing its own review … looking at its processes and making modifications so that it continues to improve. Any organisation worth its salt does exactly that, whether it’s making kitchen equipment, launching spaceships or all building bridges.

    What is interesting, is that the two errors which are being played up by the denialists do not knock over the fact that Himalayan glaciers are melting rapidly ( and I’ll already posing major issues within the region) or that the Amazon is drying rapidly as a result of rapid climate shifts related to greenhouse gas warming.

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