IPCC Controversy: Shooting the Messenger

It seems even a day cannot go by without some newspaper, magazine or TV channel carrying an expose about yet another blunder by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). On the eve of the Copenhagen Conference, there was the so-called “climategate” scandal when hackers breaking into computers of the Climate Research Unit at UK’s University of East Anglia discovered e-mails and documents revealing attempts to suppress evidence going against the Unit’s conclusions. Then the story broke about an erroneous prediction in IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC/AR4) that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035 due to global warming. A virulent campaign was conducted mostly in the British press not only against the IPCC but also against Chairman Rajendra Pachauri who was held responsible for the IPCC flaws and also accused of personal corruption especially by securing research funding for The Energy & Resources Institute (TERI) in Delhi (which also he heads) based on faulty findings in the IPCC Report.

Going by the media frenzy, one would think the IPCC had got it all wrong, on glaciers, extreme weather events, dwindling numbers of polar bears, what have you. IPCC’s Assessment Reports were seen as the gold standard of climate science and now uddenly, IPCC stands accused even of fudging the facts. Climate skeptics never had it so good. Two decade-old arguments have been reinvigorated: scientists are needlessly spreading panic, climate change may not actually be happening, and even if some of it is, how do we know it is not natural?
There are clearly many levels of debate involved here. First, regarding the facts. Second, as regards procedures in reviewing research and arriving at conclusions. Third, as regards individual and institutional ethics in the IPCC, in TERI and in government. And fourth, perhaps as important as all the others especially in a broader context, the credibility of science itself.

Himalayan howler First prize for blunders must go to the statement about Himalayan glaciers in IPCC/AR4 that “the likelihood of them disappearing by 2035 or sooner is very high” (Working Group II or WG-II, Section 10.6.2). As admitted by IPCC after the controversy made headlines, this statement was based on “poorly substantiated estimates of rate of recession and date for the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers”. That is putting it mildly! The assessment is simply wrong and should never have been made, certainly given the evidence cited.

Dr.Murari Lal from India, one of the Coordinating Lead Authors of the AR4’s WG-II Chapter on Asia, and not himself a glaciologist, has since stated in an interview to London’s Daily Mail that the date was inserted in order to “impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action”. This excuse of good intention only make matters worse, for it confesses to an agenda-driven rather than fact-based scientific conclusion. That said, there are other angles to the story too.
The 2035 prediction is not carried anywhere else in the Report. In the Executive Summary to the whole AR4, a more careful statement on trends is made: “widespread mass losses from glaciers… are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century, reducing… meltwater from major mountain ranges eg. Hindu-Kush, Himalaya, Andes.” It is well known that Himalayan glaciers are poorly studied, especially on the Indian side, and the authors of IPCC/AR4 do not seem to have placed too much stock on, nor based any major conclusions, on this statement. Indeed the 2035 date is nonsensical even by the unsubstantiated annual rate of recession given in the Report! But even those attacking the IPCC with the Himalayan glacier stick have not, and cannot, dispute the above more general opinion rightly defended by the IPCC as “robust, appropriate, and entirely consistent with the underlying science and the broader IPCC assessment.” It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that rising temperatures will sooner or later result in melting of polar ice and of mountain snow caps and ice.

The science is still correct
In the case of other errors pointed out, the IPCC Report is even less at fault. The UK’s Sunday Times carried a tendentious story titled “IPCC Wrongly Linked Global Warming to Natural Disasters”. The story was splashed by several other media outlets including Indian newspapers. But the article was prompted by some social scientists casting doubts on a statement supposedly made in the IPCC Report on high economic costs of natural disasters, not on anybody questioning the linkage between climate change and extreme weather events! IPCC/AR4 in fact makes no definitive statement on economic costs beyond the indisputable observation that “extreme climate events… can cause significant loss of life and property damage in both developing and developed countries”. IPCC Reports are famous for their qualifying statements and predictions in probability rather than in absolute terms. Here too the Report states that some studies showed negative economy-wide costs while others did not, that there are many complex factors affecting costs appraisal of, say, near-term agricultural impact, and that “there is considerable uncertainty associated with assessment of economic impact of climate change”.

So let us be clear. Several issues have indeed been raised by the controversies over different statements in IPCC/AR4, but none of them contradict the core assessments that climate change is real and man-made, that global average temperatures are rising, that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are increasing and that these will have serious consequences for humanity. On these there is wide scientific consensus. More than 17,000 published and peer-reviewed papers have been taken into account and more than 3000 scientists have been involved in writing AR4. No other scientific exercise hitherto has involved such extensive and inclusive work. The message of the IPCC is incontrovertible, the attempt here is to shoot the messenger.

It must be noted that from the very beginning of the climate debate, there has been a concerted effort to discredit the science and scientists backing the idea of anthropogenic climate change. Fossil-fuel based energy and automobile industry lobbies, the US and some other governments, right-wing think tanks and many others have been known to distort evidence, doctor reports, famously within the White House itself, and otherwise cast doubt on the growing evidence and consensus. Big tobacco did the same and produced many “scientific” studies “disproving” the link between smoking and high incidence of lung cancer. Not all climate skeptics or media reports fall into this category, of course, and several valid issues have no doubt been highlighted. But the increasingly shrill chorus of the current campaign against the IPCC and its core findings smack of orchestration.

Deficient procedures However, none of this excuses the mistakes made in IPCC/AR4 which have resulted not so much from poor research but from inadequate review cross-checking procedures vital in so complex and multi-disciplinary a subject.

The peer review system, that is appraisal of research by other experts in the same or related fields, has long been the established best practice in science to assess the quality of research and its findings. Yet it also carries some inherent dangers, especially when not practiced scrupulously. The peer review system is often abused by hand-picking of reviewers with favourable views on the research subject or friendly relations with the scientist in question. Old boys’ networks, cronyism and mutual back-scratching have long plagued research, as academics and researchers in India know only too well!    With over 90,000 reviewers’ comments, and with multiple authors for different chapters, IPCC/AR4 may have built-in fairly good checks but obviously not foolproof ones. The glacier data cited was from just one scientist, and it is not known what other reviewers had to say about it then, but certainly afterwards many Indian and other glaciologists have raised serious questions.  But as Dr.Murari Lal observed, the mistake in the Report was made not by just one or a few scientists but went unnoticed by the many hundreds of authors and reviewers involved! IPCC peer review in future must go beyond a few selected reviewers, and procedures need to be evolved to enable the wider scientific community to also read and comment on IPCC Reports. Mistakes may still occur but not for want of doing everything possible to check them.

For his part, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh went hammer and tongs against the IPCC blunder and lamented that Indian scientists had not done enough climate research and were too dependent on western information. True enough, even though the glaciologist cited here happened to be Indian! Then his Ministry went on to officially publish a clearly agenda-driven “counter” study on Himalayan Glaciers which was also not peer-reviewed and contained numerous unverified statements and internal contradictions, including an executive summary that differed with findings in the text! The Minister also conveniently forgot that, as per UN procedures, the IPCC Report had been reviewed and approved by the Indian government who too had overlooked the mistake! Everyone has an axe to grind, it seems. And now the Minister has decided to send a government minder to all IPCC Board Meetings, ostensibly to exercise oversight on the IPCC and Chairman Pachauri! Does science benefit from being sarkari?

Grey literature
A more troublesome problem is the use, certainly in the glacier case, of what is known as “grey literature”, that is articles or other publications that have not been peer-reviewed.  The Report’s statement on Himalayan glaciers disappearing by 2035 is referenced to an article in a journal of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), wherein a further reference had been made to an earlier magazine interview given by the single glaciologist referred to above! Not a peer-reviewed publication, not a research-based conclusion, just an off-hand speculative comment highlighted in the publication of an NGO committed to pushing for climate action! WWF too has had to clarify that the statement on glaciers was speculative. Other prominent international environmental NGOs too have had to make similar admissions in the wake of the recent controversies.

In the modern era, rapid advances in science and technology are impacting a wide swathe of society in many ways. Increasing specialization as well as cloistering of research behind corporate or institutional walls has further heightened the distance between science and the people it affects, prompting suspicion and fear about both science and scientists. Indeed, issues relating to large dams, GM foods, environmental pollution and climate change are intrinsically societal issues and cannot be left only to experts to decide upon. Peoples science or public interest science has come up as a response to shutting out peoples voices from decision-making relating to S&T which is sought to be confined only to those with expertise in the subject. Numerous NGOs, popular movements and “civil society organizations” now rightly conduct independent studies on many S&T issues, publish material, pronounce opinions and campaign on them.

Surely the same caution, cross-check, peer reviews and verification that are demanded of the mainstream scientific community should also apply to such NGO studies, publications and campaigns based on them. This has most definitely not happened till now, and many sweeping statements and unverified pronouncements are made by various organizations on complex issues.

The recent controversies will have served a good purpose if the IPCC, as assured by them, build more robust systems and procedures for the Fifth Assessment Report to ensure that the well-enunciated Principles Governing IPCC Work, namely to thoroughly review the “quality and validity of each source” of information and conclusions, are adhered to. It is clear that most climate skeptics and critics of the IPCC have not, and do not, bother to do this. But will at least NGOs and popular movements do the same?